[Israel] An unwritten deal is exactly what Iran and America need

Trita Parsi

Foreign Policy  /  June 20, 2023

An informal agreement is a poor substitute for an official one—but exactly what the circumstances call for.

Rumors are abounding that after 10 months of almost no diplomatic activity, the United States and Iran are close to reaching an informal agreement that will prevent a further escalation between the two. What is on the table is not the renewal of the 2015 nuclear agreement—which remains in a comatose state—but rather an unwritten understanding that neither side will pull the plug on the respirator.

Diplomacy between the United States and Iran has steadily degraded over the years. From the intense and, at times, weeks-long direct negotiations that produced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—a more than 100-page written agreement embodied in a unanimously approved U.N. Security Council resolution—to the current mostly indirect negotiations over an unwritten, informal understanding.

Yet, it is a victory for both countries because, without this informal agreement, the two sides would steadily be moving toward a disastrous confrontation.

Nothing has been announced yet, but the informal agreement is reported to entail a commitment from Iran to refrain from enriching uranium beyond 60 percent, potentially also stop or slow down the stockpiling of enriched uranium at that level, halt attacks by allied militias in Iraq and Syria on U.S. troops and contractors, refrain from providing Russia with ballistic missiles, and expand collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In return, the United States will refrain from tightening sanctions on Iran, stop seizing oil tankers with Iranian oil, and refrain from pushing the IAEA or the U.N. Security Council to adopt punitive measures against Tehran.

Moreover, Tehran will release several American citizens wrongfully imprisoned in Iran in return for the unfreezing of Iranian money held in foreign banks as well as the release of four Iranians imprisoned in the US. The money would not be returned to Iran, but Tehran will be able to spend it on food and medicine.

Hints that a small breakthrough was in the making have been visible for the past few weeks. Iranian and American officials have quietly met in New York as well as in Oman. Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Albusaidi sounded upbeat on the prospects of an agreement in an interview last week, saying that he senses “seriousness” on the part of both Washington and Tehran. “I can say they are close,” Albusaidi said to Al-Monitor. The Biden administration has also provided the Iraqi government with a waiver to allow it to pay a $2.76 billion gas and electricity debt to Iran. While Washington insists that this was a routine waiver, the Iraqi side reported that approval was given during a meeting between the Iraqi foreign minister and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the sidelines of a conference in Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps most importantly, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei signaled openness to an agreement with the West in a speech on June 11, with the condition that Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would remain intact. The reported details of the informal agreement appear to abide by that condition. That same day, the head of Iran’s atomic nuclear agency, Mohammad Eslami, further signaled Tehran’s openness to a deal by telling reporters that Tehran had increased its enrichment levels in order to force the West to lift sanctions.

In many ways, the informal agreement gives renewed life to a comatose JCPOA. As I wrote in December 2021, a variety of factors—above all, a lack of political will—had doomed the agreement to neither being revived nor allowed to die. The two sides had a hard time mustering the will to renew the agreement, yet they also shared an interest in avoiding the crisis that would erupt if it was declared dead. The solution was to pretend that it was alive. As long as neither side escalated excessively, and as long as the Israeli government refrained from sabotaging the United States’ calculation, the pretense could flourish.

That symmetry of interest lasted for roughly 18 months. The expansion of Iran’s nuclear activities, as well as the United States’ confiscation of Iranian oil tankers, threatens to disrupt this fragile balance. By agreeing to halt their mutual escalations, the hope is that a crisis can be avoided for another 18 months. What at first was an unspoken understanding has now become an informal agreement that provides them with what they need the most—time.

U.S. President Joe Biden desperately wants to avoid any crisis with Iran before the 2024 presidential election. Given the crises and tensions in Ukraine and over Taiwan, he can ill afford a war in the Middle East. Tehran, in turn, needs economic relief as well as quiet on the U.S.-Iran front so that Iran can proceed with its normalizations with Arab states. Moreover, Tehran wants to keep the agreement alive until at least 2025, when some key restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program expire.

The fact that a written and formal agreement seems beyond their reach is a reflection of both a lack of political will and changing domestic and geopolitical circumstances.

Iran’s brutal and bloody crackdown on protests over the past 10 months has nearly evaporated what little appetite existed in the U.S. Congress to approve a renewed nuclear deal. An informal agreement, however, escapes the claws of Congress and enables Biden to evade that fight. Tehran, in turn, believes that any formal agreement that is smaller than the JCPOA will be to its detriment, as it devalues Iran’s nuclear leverage. A smaller, informal agreement, however, does not have that drawback.

Changing geopolitical factors also render a formal agreement more difficult. As time has passed, the agenda has not only become more difficult as a result of Iran’s nuclear advances; it has also become larger as a result of the war in Ukraine.

Contrary to Washington’s hopes, time has not weakened Tehran’s bargaining position. Despite the domestic upheaval and the clerical regime’s profound unpopularity, Iran has expanded its nuclear program, normalized relations with Saudi Arabia (which renders efforts to isolate Iran more difficult), and strengthened its relations with Russia by aiding its illegal invasion of Ukraine, which Washington views as a major provocation. As a result, any agreement—formal or informal—will also need to roll back some of Iran’s advances on those fronts. Moreover, in spite of its economic mismanagement and lack of legitimacy, there are no signs that the regime is in imminent danger of collapse.

Had the Biden administration just returned to the JCPOA through an executive order in January 2021, or had Tehran not squabbled the negotiated package in August 2022, Washington would have been spared from dealing with most of these Iranian advances. Indeed, had the JCPOA been revived, Iran would most likely not have aided Russia in Ukraine, as its cost-benefit analysis would have looked dramatically different if there was something from the West it could lose. Currently, there isn’t.

Israel remains a wild card in this context. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is obsessed with killing the nuclear agreement, and the Israeli government has repeatedly made clear that it is not bound by what Washington agrees to. But faced with an unprecedented legitimacy crisis at home and extensive tensions with Israel’s security establishment, Bibi may not      have the capacity to play spoiler on U.S.-Iran diplomacy as he has so many times before.

Questioned in the Knesset about the pending informal agreement between the United States and Iran, he sounded almost defeated, arguing that Biden is not negotiating a nuclear deal “but a mini-deal.”

“We will be able to handle it,” he told Knesset members.

Bibi may even conclude that the informal agreement may be of value to him as well as it buys him time to mount a more decisive challenge to the JCPOA after 2025. After all, compared to a fully revived JCPOA, this informal agreement ultimately prolongs the period in which the JCPOA is not revived.

Israel’s calculations aside, can an informal, unwritten agreement be trusted? The bottom line is that the agreement will only hold for as long as Washington and Tehran’s symmetric interest in avoiding a crisis holds. Neither side has any illusion about its weakness. If the United States could leave a fully functioning, written agreement embodied in a U.N. Security Council resolution, then this agreement is—in the long run—not worth the paper it isn’t written on.

In the short run, however, it will give both sides some respite, and if they have the political will, the ensuing de-escalation may create an opportunity to negotiate a more lasting agreement. But for now, a political cease-fire will have to do.

Trita Parsi is the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft