There were no surprises during the first phase of the resumed Iran nuclear talks last week, with everything unfolding according to the script, but changing circumstances have allowed another potential outcome to emerge that can be dubbed the “coma option”, writes Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute.
Under this scenario, explains Parsi in an essay for MSNBC, in which the Vienna negotiations to resurrect the 2015 nuclear deal have become almost deadlocked, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as the agreement between Iran and major powers is known, “would all but die, but the parties would pretend that it is still alive to avoid the crisis that its official death would spur. Let’s call it the coma option. Think of how Western powers have pretended that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been alive for the last decades”.
Looking at the outcome of the talks held last week, Parsi observed: “Iran, led by new President Ebrahim Raisi’s government, adopted a much harsher negotiating position, which the U.S. and the Europeans predictably rejected as the blame game officially began. Despite the harsh rhetoric from the Biden administration, this is how everyone expected this round to start and end.
“It will most likely be revealed in the next round whether Tehran’s new demands are opening bids or solid red lines. According to U.S. negotiators, Iran went ‘with proposals that walked back anything—any of the compromises Iran had floated here in the six rounds of talks [held in the initial talks in Vienna early this year], pocket all of the compromises that others, and the U.S. in particular, had made, and then asked for more."
Parsi, the author of “Losing an Enemy — Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy”, reflects on the unattractive options if diplomacy fails—such as a tightening of sanctions on Tehran in an effort to persuade it not to develop its nuclear knowhow to an unacceptable point in the military sphere, covert operations in an attempt at thwarting the Iranian nuclear development programme or war—and concludes that the “coma option” might appeal to all sides.
“In the past, any situation short of a full deal was unstable and prone to escalate toward conflict,” she says. “Today, things are different. Biden would most likely prefer a comatose arrangement to a military confrontation with Iran, and he might also find it more attractive than the concessions he ultimately would have to offer Tehran to truly revive the agreement. Moreover, beyond the political capital Biden would need to spend to return to the agreement, even more capital would have to be spent in 2023, when the agreement obligates the U.S. to lift sanctions on Iran in Congress. Undoubtedly, few in the White House look forward to that congressional fight only months before the 2024 presidential election.”
Looking at whether the “coma option” would be acceptable to Iran, Parsi notes: “Tehran’s preferences might also be shifting in this direction. A fundamental problem for the talks is that Biden’s sanctions relief is largely empty. Few international companies and investors would enter the Iranian market unless they have confidence that the deal would survive the 2024 presidential election. As France’s former U.N. ambassador, Gerard Araud, tweeted Friday: ‘Even if the JCPOA was restored, no Western company would dare invest a cent in Iran, no Western bank would finance any deal in Iran with the threat of the return of US sanctions in 2025. Once was enough. The Iranians know it.’
“Without credible sanctions relief, the essential give-and-take of the agreement collapses. Why would Tehran give up its nuclear leverage now if real sanctions relief wouldn’t be coming until 2025—if even then? But if the agreement entered a coma, Tehran would keep its nuclear leverage while strengthening its economic and political ties with Moscow, Beijing and other governments that would disregard Washington’s sanctions. While clearly not optimal, it is preferable to both a sanctions-less deal and war with the U.S. This would, however, require that Tehran temper its nuclear advances, which it might do since it no longer would press the U.S. to rejoin the agreement.”
'We'll never admit JCPOA is dead'
Despite the deficiencies of the “coma option”, avoiding a crisis and a war would similarly make it preferable to European powers, adds Parsi, saying: "As an E.U. diplomat told me last week, ‘We will never admit that the JCPOA is dead.’"
The wild card, says Parsi, is, of course, Israel. “Despite Biden’s extensive efforts to create a united front with Israel, the Bennet government’s positions haven’t shifted in any meaningful way. [Naftali] Bennet bizarrely still opposes the Iran deal, as well as a U.S. return to the agreement, the diplomacy in Vienna, a smaller interim deal and the status quo. Israel worries that the agreement will normalize Iran’s nuclear activities and help improve U.S.-Iran relations. It also worries that Tehran’s program will grow unrestrained and make Iran a de facto nuclear power absent an agreement.
“Israel’s vehement opposition to an unrestrained program and Iran’s incessant military threats are why a coma option didn’t exist before. Today, however, assuming Iran doesn’t expand its program too aggressively and the U.S. maintains sanctions that keep the Iranian economy weak, even Israel might prefer this situation to an unpredictable intensification of the conflict. It would most likely continue to sabotage Iran’s program, but with less spectacular attacks, which would enable Iran to deny that anything happened at all.”
Parsi concludes that as long as all sides see both the cost of a nuclear deal breakthrough—in terms of the compromises they would have to swallow—and the price of admitting diplomatic failure too high, “they might converge toward a suboptimal yet preferable slumber of the agreement for the rest of Biden’s presidency. It wouldn’t be the achievement of courageous and visionary statesmen and women but that of tactical politicians solely seeking to stave off a crisis on their watch”.
*The Quincy Institute is a think tank that “promotes ideas that move U.S. foreign policy away from endless war and toward vigorous diplomacy in the pursuit of international peace”.