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How to Save the Iran Nuclear Deal

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Western officials are raising concerns that Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, will eventually torpedo the talks between his country and major world powers that are intended to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, which has been in disarray since the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the agreement in 2018. They worry that Raisi is already delaying the resumption of negotiations and that when the talks finally resume, his administration will put forth impractical demands. But the real obstacle facing the negotiations is not the Raisi government’s hard-line views, but the failure of Washington and Tehran to resolve the fundamental disagreements that thwarted a deal at the last round of talks in Vienna in June—even under the more moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani.

In fact, Iran’s new government seems resolved to carry on with the talks and is likely to pick up where its predecessor left off. Tehran remains invested in the progress made between April and June during six rounds of talks aimed at resuscitating the accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But if the United States and Iran fail to adapt their positions to bridge the gap that separates them, they will remain at an impasse—with potentially disastrous results for both countries and the entire Middle East. If they seek a different result, then they need a different approach.

At the heart of the standoff are misperceptions on both sides. The Biden administration treats Iran as it would treat any adversarial negotiating partner, whereas Iran, burned by President Donald Trump’s withdrawal and wounded by the imposition of draconian sanctions, sees itself as the aggrieved party. For its part, the Iranian leadership believes that time is on its side: Washington has already sanctioned Iran to the hilt, it assesses, and yet Iran’s economy has survived and is now expanding. Given its nuclear program’s exponential growth, officials in Tehran think they are well positioned to build more leverage and extract more concessions from the West.

But the truth is that the collapse of the JCPOA would represent the worst of all worlds for both countries. If they fail to change tack when talks resume, negotiations are bound to end in deadlock. In the absence of a path to reestablishing the nuclear accord, the Biden administration would face huge political pressure to double down on Trump’s policy of applying “maximum pressure,” which the Biden administration opposed and has characterized as an abject failure. On top of that, Washington would be forced to make even harder decisions as Iran’s nuclear program reached the point of no return and recurrent Israeli calls for military action became louder and more resonant.

Iran already senses advantage in........

© Foreign Affairs

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