Hanging by a Thread: Changing Circumstances Reverse Course on Iran Nuclear Deal, for Now

Hanging by a Thread: Changing Circumstances Reverse Course on Iran Nuclear Deal, for Now

Iran’s resistance to IAEA inspections, suppression of domestic protests, and support for Putin’s war on Ukraine, make a deal a hard sell for Washington, though realpolitik might see the negotiations revive after the US mid-term elections

Just weeks ago, there were reports that a nuclear deal with Iran was close to being signed. Both sides of the negotiation table were quoted as saying the final details were being ironed out and a signature was close to being clinched.

Now it seems the opposite is true: The deal is stalled, and the sides have grown apart.

A set of circumstances has put a hold on the deal, and it is questionable whether its revival will be possible.

Negotiations between world powers and Iran resumed in early 2021 following the inauguration of US President Joe Biden, after the Trump Administration abandoned the deal in 2018.

The original 2015 deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), gave Iran relief from crippling sanctions in return for limiting its nuclear program. It was signed between Iran and the P5+1 countries, namely, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US – plus Germany.

But since the resumption of talks, despite a brief period of optimism, it seems the sides have now resigned to their failure.

“The negotiations are essentially clinically dead but neither side is declaring death officially,” said Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies.

According to Guzansky, both sides have an interest in stalling the talks rather than admitting their failure.

“For Iran, it gives them time to continue enriching uranium and make progress in their program. For the US, the death of the negotiations would face them with the need to act upon a contingency plan which they do not have and are not necessarily interested in,” he explained.

While President Biden has said his country would not allow Iran to achieve nuclear weapons capabilities, it is unclear whether the US would take military action to guarantee this.

In recent months, the Biden Administration has strengthened sanctions against Iran. The American intention to penalize companies trying to help Iran ship and sell petroleum may have dampened the initial optimism among negotiators. The sanctions were just one hiccup in a series of events that have led to the current stalemate.

Another stumbling block has been the Iranian refusal to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency probes on several undeclared sites in which unexplained uranium particles were detected.

Then came the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman who died after being detained by the Guidance Patrol, Iran’s morality police, for not covering her hair properly. The incident sparked a wave of protests in the country that is still ongoing. The demonstrations have attracted international attention and condemnation as the Iranian government launched a violent crackdown on protestors which only appear to be further fueled by the suppression.

In response, the Biden Administration imposed sanctions on the morality police in Iran, heightening the tensions between Tehran and Washington. The US president indicated he was willing to impose more sanctions as the regime’s brutality against protestors continued.

The US stance on events within Iran puts the administration in a difficult position regarding the nuclear deal. Such a deal would see the funneling of billions of dollars to the very regime that the US is denouncing and trying to curb. Critics are calling for the US to stop negotiations, saying that the money would only strengthen an already oppressive regime.

The US is headed to mid-term elections next month. With President Biden’s approval ratings consistently unfavorable, it will be a hard sell to advance an agreement with Iran as public sentiment against the regime is negative.

All the while, in the absence of an agreement, experts believe Iran is continuing to advance its nuclear program. Iran consistently denies the program is for offensive, military purposes.

Another shadow cast on the negotiations, perhaps the greatest one, is the ongoing war in Europe.

Earlier this week, Iranian involvement in the war through extensive military support for Russia became highly evident. As Iranian-made drones were used by Russia to attack the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the Europeans were quick to condemn it.

“Iranians are now seen as disrupting world order and harming world peace,” said Guzansky. “Iran is now fighting in Europe and seen as helping their greatest enemy.”

“The Russian-Iranian alliance makes it much more difficult for the West to trust or to improve relations with Iran,” said Prof. Gerald Steinberg, from the Political Science Department at Bar Ilan University. “They can now not trust Iran to keep the terms of the agreement, even much less so than would have been the case just weeks ago, when it was already problematic.”

The war between Russia and Ukraine has plunged Europe into a deep energy crisis. This could be what will help resuscitate negotiations.

“There is a great American interest to reach a deal in order to bring back Iranian oil to the markets, in light of events in Europe,” Guzansky explained.

International relations are often dictated by interests. However uncomfortable the US may be striking a deal with Iran due to its policies, realpolitik might see the negotiations revive after the mid-term elections.

Yet public criticism in the US and Europe of Iranian behavior may overcome the need for oil.

“Iranian oil is almost as tainted as Russian oil,” said Steinberg. “Even if there were to be an agreement, there is such a high degree of hostility and skepticism, especially if the internal unrest in Iran continues. It would be hard to justify Iranian oil when they are not buying Russian oil.”

For many years, Israel has voiced its concern over Iranian nuclear aspirations. Seeing it as its archrival, it was opposed to the original JCPOA and was highly supportive of the American withdrawal in 2018. Israeli officials accompanied the revival of the negotiations with stark warnings. The current impasse may satisfy Israel, with caution.

“The general position in Israel is that Iran will ignore the important provisions and continue to make progress toward nuclear capability while getting money back from sanctions relief,” said Steinberg. “If an agreement is signed, Israel will be facing a difficult position in which Iran will have more money to fund Iranian proxies while developing nuclear weapons.”

However, the lack of agreement could be more worrisome for Israel than the absence of one. It is an issue that has divided defense officials in the country.

For now, the world is facing a reality that has no agreement in sight. With the current, complicated circumstances, an agreement seems to be moving further away.

“The entire process has been frozen; there be some artificial measures and actions to show that there is still an effort but a serious agreement now would be very difficult to conclude, given all the obstacles,” Steinberg said.

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