Foreign Policy

Iran-U.S. Nuclear Talks on a Hair Set off

Perhaps the most jarring irony of the monthslong negotiations to restore the 2015 nuclear pact with Iran is that both Tehran and Washington badly want to make it happen—yet, in the end, may not be able to. 

Why? Deepening mistrust is one reason: a toxic suspicion of the other side exacerbated by the orchestrated election last week of Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-liner with a murderous history who is to replace moderate Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president in August. Although Raisi said he wants to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 nuclear deal is known, he and the Iranian regime are now making impossible demands. In particular, Tehran is now insisting on something U.S. President Joe Biden cannot deliver: a guarantee that no future U.S. administration will withdraw from the deal as Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, did.

Perhaps the most jarring irony of the monthslong negotiations to restore the 2015 nuclear pact with Iran is that both Tehran and Washington badly want to make it happen—yet, in the end, may not be able to. 

Why? Deepening mistrust is one reason: a toxic suspicion of the other side exacerbated by the orchestrated election last week of Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-liner with a murderous history who is to replace moderate Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president in August. Although Raisi said he wants to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 nuclear deal is known, he and the Iranian regime are now making impossible demands. In particular, Tehran is now insisting on something U.S. President Joe Biden cannot deliver: a guarantee that no future U.S. administration will withdraw from the deal as Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, did.

Another reason for renewed skepticism is things have changed so much on the ground for both sides. Biden is unwilling to roll back all the sanctions imposed by his Trump. And Tehran is so far advanced in its technical development, especially its new, much faster IR-9 centrifuge—which it is now testing—that its “breakout” timeline for a bomb has shrunk considerably, possibly already rendering the JCPOA moot. 

“There is a realization by both sides that restoring the status quo ante is not entirely possible,” said Ali Vaez, head of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group and a former close associate of the lead U.S. negotiator, Robert Malley. “Iran is not likely to get the same amount of sanctions relief as it had in 2015 and 2016, and the U.S. is not likely to be able to roll back all of Iran’s nuclear enhancements since Trump left the deal in 2018.”

Even so, the desire of both sides—and the European nations brokering the talks in Vienna—to restore some form of the pact could still prevail. Malley and the other negotiators plan to head back to Vienna next week for what could be a seventh and final round of negotiations, and many technical compromises are already on the table.

“I think by now it has become clear what the bottom lines are on both sides,” said Vaez, who still puts the odds of some kind of deal at about 70 percent. “If the parties go back to Vienna with the required flexibility, then it is quite possible to wrap this up by mid to late July.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is believed to want a deal signed before Rouhani leaves office, so any public backlash from a compromise deal hurts the former president and not Raisi, Khamenei’s likely anointed heir as supreme leader. 

If they cannot agree, however, that could spell an end to all hopes for the pact. The U.S. team believes if a deal is not reached by August, the 60-year-old Raisi will probably take a lot of time before resuming talks. By that point, however, Iran’s nuclear advances may no longer be constrainable by the accord, especially if the latest generation centrifuge, the IR-9—which is believed to be 50 times faster than Iran’s first-generation centrifuges—is brought on line. Advanced centrifuges allow Iran to enrich more uranium to greater purity in less time.

Iran, in other words, may be on the verge of shortening its route to a bomb at exactly the moment when the Biden administration is under huge pressure from Capitol Hill to toughen the terms of the 2015 pact—and is insisting on a “longer and stronger” deal that includes Iran’s missile program and regional support of violent proxies, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and anti-U.S. militias in Iraq. Raisi insists Iran’s ballistic missiles and regional activities are “not negotiable.” 

In addition, the extended inspection period negotiated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), under which Iran will maintain U.N. nuclear inspection data, expires on June 24, and it is not clear IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi will be able to negotiate another one. That could also doom the JCPOA.

All this suggests the two sides may be sailing into a diplomatic Scylla and Charybdis.

Another huge sticking point has been Iran’s insistence on removing all sanctions Trump imposed as “poison pills” to ensure the 2015 deal could never be resurrected. Those include more than 700 sanctions imposed outside the nuclear pact and designed to break Iran’s economy and humiliate its leadership, especially key figures in Khamenei’s office (and on Khamenei himself). The Biden team has indicated it cannot remove all of these—possibly including sanctions levied on Raisi because of his involvement in the execution of thousands of dissidents in the late 1980s and another violent crackdown in 2009. Other sanctions, such as those levied against Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, would probably be lifted under a return to the pact.

“I think all sanctions are on the table, but I wouldn’t say all are going to be lifted,” said a European diplomat privy to some details of the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The ball is now in Iran’s court as to what they’ll accept.”

Earlier this month, the Biden administration preemptively lifted sanctions on some Iranians involved with the oil trade through a “network of front companies and intermediaries.” The move was interpreted as an inducement to Tehran, but, at the same time, the administration added additional sanctions to other Iranians accused of providing financial support to the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The stress of sanctions on Iran’s economy is such that Khamenei—who will make any final decision—may be willing to strike a compromise via a new deal. Iran wants the release of tens of billions of dollars  of frozen assets, but that won’t go a long way toward healing the overall damage to Iran’s economy since Trump imposed hundreds of additional sanctions—including ruinous levies on the Central Bank of Iran, the National Iranian Oil Company, and the National Iranian Tanker Company—allegedly for financing state-sponsored terrorism. Zarif recently claimed the cumulative damage from Trump’s sanctions has amounted to about $1 trillion, and Tehran wants “compensation”—although that figure is probably highly exaggerated. Only last September, Rouhani himself put the damages at about $150 billion.

Yet another new wild card is the installation of a new hard-line administration in Israel, Iran’s No. 1 enemy. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett—who, like his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, abhors the 2015 deal—sent his military chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, to Washington this week to warn the United States and European powers to “wake up” to the dangers of any new compromise since Raisi’s election. According to a statement by the Israel Defense Forces, Kochavi warned his U.S. counterpart, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, that a return to the Iran nuclear deal would be “dangerous.” According to an Israeli news report, Bennett has even removed a ban imposed by Netanyahu against Israeli officials publicly addressing the negotiations. 

Bennett, responding to Netanyahu’s provocative suggestions that the new prime minister, a neophyte on the global scene, is not up to the task of dealing with international crises and managing the relationship with Washington, is said to want to prove his bona fides as a hard-line defender of Israel’s security. Bennett will likely sign off on every covert action against Iran’s nuclear program that crosses his desk, and this could also upset negotiations in Vienna. Several Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated in the last decade—allegedly by Israeli operatives—and an Iranian military vessel stationed in the Red Sea was recently damaged by a suspected Israeli mine attack in the latest expansion of the Israel-Iran conflict.

“Now we’re seeing this gray-zone war take to the seas as well,” and it’s likely to escalate, said Suzanne Maloney, director of the foreign-policy program at the Brookings Institution, at a Wilson Center webinar on Tuesday. The question then will become how much leverage Biden has with the new Israeli government.

Critics of Bennett say, like Netanyahu, he will oppose any pact with Iran no matter what Tehran agrees to. “When our new prime minister says it is a bad deal, I believe that he does not even know the details,” said Ami Ayalon, former director of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, and ex-commander of the Israeli Navy. Ayalon added he believes “even a bad deal is better than no deal.” 

Despite all the obstacles, some experts suggest for both sides, a return to some form of the 2015 deal is far more desirable than a continued stalemate. Iran’s economy cannot continue to endure U.S. sanctions without more political turmoil, and Washington knows any kind of pact is more a restraint on Tehran than nothing at all.

“I think there will be a deal because, frankly, the alternatives are just so much less attractive,” Vaez said.

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