Iranian hardliners may see every progressive delay in nuclear talks as a signal to take one step back.

President Joe Biden’s languid pace in rejoining the Iran 'nuclear deal' (JCPOA) has emboldened Iran’s hardliners into moving towards 60 percent uranium enrichment. At the same time, however, in small steps, both Washington and Tehran are indicating their willingness to give peace a chance.  

On Sunday the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), struck a three-month deal with Iran giving it sufficient access to verify nuclear activity in the country, opening space for wider diplomatic talks between Tehran and the US. 

But Iran’s hardline parliamentary speaker, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf - an old adversary of the moderate President Hassan Rouhani - tweeted the agreement was illegal, calling for a halt to IAEA inspections. 

Qalibaf was referring to a law that he rushed through parliament in December allowing increased uranium enrichment and a halt to IAEA inspection if sanctions were not lifted by 23 February. 

A letter approved by 221 parliamentary members on Monday referred to that law, asking the judiciary to investigate “the government’s neglect of Iran’s national interests”. 

On Tuesday Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif dismissed the move saying the deal conforms with the legislation and Iran would still work with the IAEA according to the Safeguards Agreement.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, called for unity but in an address the same day he stressed the law should be “executed precisely” and that enrichment could be increased to 60 percent “in accordance with the country’s needs”. 

The fact that President Rouhani managed to salvage the IAEA agreement and Ayatollah Khamenei did not reject it indicates a willingness to stay in the deal provided “the other side return to their commitments”. 

Nevertheless President Biden should have moved before February 23, so full IAEA inspections could have continued. 

In several interviews this week, Iran’s Zarif has been stressing the need to move fast suggesting that a “synchronised” return by Iran and the US to the JCPOA could be “coordinated” by the European Joint Commission. The commission is headed by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, who has stated that the Iran deal is "the most important and urgent task" for restored EU-US cooperation under President Biden.

Joe Biden has been saying he wants to salvage the JCPOA. But he is swayed by his European partners, arguing that the situation has changed since 2015 and the whole concept of relations with Iran needs to be revised. 

Iran believes that President Biden should return to the deal through signing an executive order, just as former president Donald Trump left it in 2018 –  through an executive order.

Zarif and Rouhani argue that all other issues of concern need to be discussed separately within an equal Middle Eastern framework bringing into account Saudi Arabia and the UAE's arms purchases, as well as Israel’s nuclear program. 

New hopes

Over the last week hopes were raised for the US administration to come up with fresh ideas, perhaps at Munich’s Security Conference or at the foreign ministers meeting in Paris. 

But nothing came of those other than a lengthy joint statement  by the US Secretary of State and the foreign ministers of France, UK, and Germany warning Iran not to embark on any further violations of the JCPOA.

Likewise, Joe Biden’s reference to the deal in his Security Conference address was disappointing. 

Zarif said he saw no change in the action of the new American administration. 

Early this week, however, symbolic moves from the US began to trickle in. On Monday Secretary Blinken tweeted that he was joining Joseph Borrell for talks “ to discuss the joint US-EU response to pressing global issues”.

And on Tuesday the foreign ministry in Seoul announced “the Iranian assets locked in South Korea will be released after consultations with the United States”. 

Tehran has been pressuring Seoul to unblock about $7 billion of its assets frozen in two South Korean banks due to US sanctions. Seoul said it received the needed assurances that it would not be violating US sanctions since the money “was to be used for humanitarian items, such as medicine and medical equipment”.

In Tehran, President Rouhani announced more “agreements reached with South Korea, Japan, Iraq and Oman on the release of the Iranian currency assets” blocked by sanctions. 

Clearly gestures of mutual goodwill are taking shape. But the key for President Biden is to re-join and salvage the JCPOA. Many Iran experts have said he should return without opening up negotiations on any other issues. 

If that were to happen in the three-month window of opportunity created by the IAEA-Tehran deal then inspections could restart and other demands could be made through a diplomatic process.

The other advantage of returning to the JCPOA sooner rather than later is that it would block obstructive moves by Iran’s hardliners and reduce their chances in the upcoming presidential elections in June – so at least America’s dialogue partners would be less hawkish.

As things stand, the US as a non-member of the JCPOA, has no power to stop Iranian hardliners from playing out their enrichment plans as legislated in December.

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