United States President Joe Biden speaks after signing an ordinance on American manufacturing on January 25, 2021 in the South Court Auditorium of the White House Complex in Washington, DC.

Drew Angerer | Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Iran and the US are in a stalemate.

President Joe Biden’s administration wants to revive the 2015 nuclear deal but is demanding changes from Tehran before lifting the heavy sanctions imposed on the country by the Trump team.

In the meantime, Iran wants Washington to step up its game and take the first step. He refuses to budge until these sanctions are lifted.

Iran has set a deadline of Sunday, February 21st. He promises that the United Nations inspectors will block access to his nuclear facilities if the oil and banking sanctions are not lifted by then.

Political brinkmanship raises questions about Biden’s plans to save a deal that has been effectively life-sustaining since former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the United States in 2018.

“Much harder to get to”

The Iranian nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was spearheaded by the Obama administration and included several other world powers. It lifted international sanctions against Iran and offered the country 83 million in economic relief in return for limiting its nuclear program, which included mandatory inspections by the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Any removal of IAEA inspectors “would make it much more difficult to reach an agreement. Without mechanisms to oversee the Iranian nuclear program, distrust of the US and the remaining parties of the JCPOA would deepen,” wrote Torbjorn Soltvedt, MENA chief analyst at Verisk Maplecroft in a research report this week.

The ultimatum is intended to force Washington to act. But it could backfire, says Behnam ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Iran’s deadline threat is said to “increase the risks and fears in Washington about the nuclear program. Risks and fears that Tehran hopes Washington will alleviate through concessions and early sanction easing,” Taleblu told CNBC.

But the heightened nuclear violations – even under Biden – “could help push Europe towards Washington, which now has limited Iran policies,” he warned.

And the Islamic Republic did not hold back from violating the parameters of the agreement following Biden’s election, which former JCPOA negotiators have described as “provocative” and “serious”. The stakes have risen since May 2019, a year after the Trump administration pulled out of the deal and began to sanction the country for so-called “destabilizing regional behavior”.

Iranian officials have previously stressed that the violations are reversible once Washington offers sanctions relief.

That relief is unlikely, however, once Biden’s goals with the deal are unsupported by much of Congress and his team wants to avoid looking at Iran “gently”.

A batch of chicken?

According to Sanam Vakil, an Iran expert and deputy head of the MENA program at Chatham House, this is not as much of a chicken game as it seems.

“It’s not really a chicken game. It’s really about the Biden administration figuring out how to go about it and how to go about it and how to go about it, and that the domestic troubles in the US are what could have been a quicker reentry , really disabled, “she said.

And the stalemate, Vakil believes, is more of a debate about the order in which certain concessions are made.

“What we are seeing in the public domain is a debate about sequencing,” she said.

“The Iranians are saying in public: ‘We need you to lift all sanctions before we do anything.’ And of course they will say they have limited confidence in the process right now because they need to know where the US stands, what the US red lines are. “

All eyes on the election of Iran

Henry Rome, regional analyst at Eurasia Group, says the Biden government is considering “making a first gesture towards Iran to demonstrate commitment to returning to the JCPOA and getting Iran to enter negotiations without significant influence the US to lose “.

Such a move would be largely symbolic, but could include lifting sanctions against individuals, removing U.S. objections to an IMF loan, or facilitating humanitarian trade.

“If the US offers a concrete sign of progress before that date (February 21), it could be enough for the Iranian leadership to distort these terms,” ​​Rom said.

Ultimately, far more important to the survival of the US-Iran deal and relations is what happens on June 18 – the Iranian presidential election, where a far tougher and anti-American leader could be elected.

The preparations for this election “will give a clearer indication of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s willingness to support another serious effort to reach an agreement,” Verisk’s Soltvedt said.

“A previous deal between Iran and the US is a distant prospect and the risk that Khamenei will deviate from the JCPOA this year will remain high.”