There has been much speculation in recent weeks about the revival of the nuclear deal, and officials in Tehran and Washington have called on each other to take action. Finally, on Thursday, February 18, the United States government took three important political diplomatic steps.
It remains to be seen whether these events will pave the way for the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or whether there is still a long way to go. The question also arises as to whether Iran will follow through with its recent threats to hold to its February 23 deadline to end implementation of the Additional Protocol. What the Supreme Leader and president of the Islamic Republic of Iran say, and whether they will change their comments and stance on the matter, also has significance.
Three Key Developments
The US made three key announcements on Thursday, all of them with weighty potential repercussions or impacts. They were:
— An expressed willingness to consider reversing restrictions on the movements of Iranian diplomats in New York
— A positive response to the prospect of meeting with officials from the other five countries involved in the original negotiations, known jointly as the P5+1 group: the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, Germany [the United States made up the sixth member]
— A withdrawal of the Trump administration’s restoration of United Nations sanctions, referred to as the “snapback”, a provision in a 2015 UN Security Council resolution
The withdrawal of the “snapback” measure was seen as the most significant development on Thursday.
Richard Mills, the US Interim Ambassador to the United Nations, announced to the Security Council that he was withdrawing letters from the previous US administration calling for the return of all UN sanctions against Iran. "The United States’ view is that the provisions of paragraphs 7 and 8, as well as paragraphs 16 to 20 of Resolution 2231, are still in place," Mills wrote in his letter, and asserted that previous sanctions resolutions “remain terminated”.
In 2015, when Iran and the six countries signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the UN Security Council issued the Resolution 2231 and essentially lifted all sanctions against Iran linked to its nuclear program.
The Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA agreement in May 2018. In August 2020, it announced to the UN Security Council that it was seeking to reinstate all sanctions against Iran (known as the trigger mechanism, or snapback), as it remained as a "participant in the JCPOA" according to Resolution 2231”. However, the leaders of several countries said the act was illegal because the US was no longer part of the JCPOA after withdrawing in 2018.
The snapback provision meant that whenever one of the JCPOA signatories confirmed that Iran had seriously violated its obligations under the JCPOA, it could demand the return of all previous sanctions against the Islamic Republic by evoking a 61-day procedure.
However, with yesterday’s announcement, the US Interim Ambassador to the United Nations stated that Washington continues to ratify Resolution 2231 and that nuclear sanctions against Iran remain canceled.
The US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the Biden administration accepted the European Unions’ invitation to attend a P5+1 meeting with Iran to "discuss a diplomatic path to Iran's nuclear program.” The last time the US had a representative in a P5+1 meeting was April 2018.
US State Department officials also said there were discussions about Iranian diplomats’ freedom to move around New York City. Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had severely restricted their movement in 2020, and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and other Iranian diplomats were allowed to travel only between the three UN headquarters, the Iranian embassy and the Iranian envoy residence. At the time, tensions between Iran and the United States had escalated following the downing of a US drone by the Revolutionary Guards, and there were even rumors that Zarif could face sanctions. However, the US State Department issued a visa for Zarif at the same time it made the announcement about a restriction on movement.
How did the World Respond?
Iran's first comment on Thursday’s developments came from the foreign minister via the ministry’s spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh.
Welcoming the US decision, Mohammad Javad Zarif also tweeted that if US sanctions were lifted, Tehran would immediately reverse its violations of the JCPOA, which he referred to as "remedial measures.”
Khatibzadeh also tweeted at the moment there was no such thing as the P5+1: "Symbolic gestures are good. "But to revive the P5+1, the United States must act: lift the sanctions."
Reuters reported that the Biden administration had already announced its new decisions on Iran to the Israeli government. However, the Israeli media reported that the Israeli government was informed through a channel other than a telephone conversation between Biden and Netanyahu.
"The diplomatic offensive has begun," wrote a number of European diplomats, including Gerard Arrow, France's ambassador to the United States.
Washington's move coincided with a joint statement issued by the foreign ministers of France, Germany, United Kingdom and the United States, who, following a quadripartite consultation, stressed the importance of Iran's full return to its commitments and warning of the consequences of suspending the Additional Protocol.
On the other hand, Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia's representative to international organizations in Vienna, tweeted: "It's better to be late than never, and the time has come for realistic politics and diplomacy.” He also criticized "those who supported the trigger mechanism and joined the policy of maximum pressure against Iran."
Several American politicians also criticized the Biden administration. US House of Representatives member Michael McCall, for example, stressed that the Biden administration's attempt to return to the "flawed agreement" of the JCPOA was "a matter of concern" and said the pressure that the Trump administration had put on Iran should not be wasted.
Congresswoman Liz Cheney tweeted that Iran was still seeking nuclear ransom and had used its proxy groups to attack the Americans.
The Washington Post also published an article that argued that since pro-Iranian proxy groups had been attacking American positions, now was the wrong time to negotiate with Iran.
However, several members of Congress showed strong support for the Biden administration. Adam Schiff, a Democrat in the House of Representatives and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, emphasized that the Islamic Republic should not have access to nuclear weapons, and welcomed the Biden administration's decision to revive diplomatic efforts and hoped it would take other steps to limit the Iran’s nuclear program as well as its support for terrorism.