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Resolution or Dissolution? Final Chance for Iran Deal Fast Approaching
Rafael Grossi (C), International Atomic Energy Agency director-general, arrives at Iran's Foreign Ministry headquarters in Tehran for a meeting with Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Nov. 23, 2021. (Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)

Resolution or Dissolution? Final Chance for Iran Deal Fast Approaching

Negotiations on the nuclear accord to resume on November 29 but path forward remains unclear

After a five-month hiatus, indirect negotiations between the US and Iran to facilitate the return of both countries into compliance with the Iran nuclear deal are scheduled to resume on November 29. Despite hopes that once resumed, talks in Vienna would bring a quick resolution and return to the agreement, the sides’ rhetoric – particularly, Iranian rhetoric – cast a shadow of uncertainty over the negotiations.

Talks were put on hold in June when a new Iranian president was elected. Ebrahim Raisi assumed his position in August, yet the countries’ return to the negotiations table was delayed by Tehran. In parallel, and in accordance with Raisi’s reputation and expectations that his government will take a harder position in Vienna, Iranian rhetoric has become more uncompromising and hostile, even as it agrees to resume negotiations.

Iran is demanding that the White House guarantee that future American administrations will be bound by the agreement. Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement unilaterally in 2018. Iran has since advanced its nuclear program significantly further than the 2015 agreement allows, including producing materials needed for military applications. Tehran is also insisting that the US, as a first step, lift economic sanctions placed on the Islamic Republic.

In response to the Iranian demand for guarantees, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) tweeted at the end of October that President “Joe Biden has ZERO constitutional authority to make that commitment,” pointing out Biden’s inability to fulfill the demand, even if he wanted to.

In response, Saeed Khatibzadeh, the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, tweeted that “the world is acutely aware of what Mr. Cruz confesses: that regimes in Washington are rogue. Onus is on @POTUS [the president of the United States] to convince int’l community—incl all JCPOA participants—that his signature means something.”

The 2015 Iran nuclear deal is officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

Khatibzadeh also tweeted that the “path for US return is clear: admission of culpability, end to its ‘max failure’ campaign & guarantee that int’l law won’t be mocked again,” highlighting another Iranian requirement, namely, that the US accept full responsibility for the deal’s collapse.

The US, in turn, has grown impatient as the months have gone by and Tehran continued to drag its feet.

Robert Malley, the US special representative to Iran, said during a visit to the Middle East recently that Iranian nuclear advances “will make it impossible even if we were going to go back to the JCPOA to recapture the benefits,” falling in line with other American officials who have said that the window of opportunity to revive the deal is closing.

Lloyd Austin, the American defense secretary, said the White House remains committed to diplomacy, but that “if Iran isn’t willing to engage seriously, then we will look at all of the options necessary to keep the United States secure.”

Austin’s words also align with other statements by US officials pointing to an amorphous “Plan B” if negotiations fail.

Israel, America’s ally and Iran’s rival in the region, is anxious to see Iranian nuclear ambitions curbed. Israeli officials have repeatedly urged their American counterparts not to lift sanctions unilaterally. While remaining engaged with the Biden administration on the subject, Israel’s government has also insisted that it is not bound by any commitments made by the US, opening the door to Israeli operations against the Iranian nuclear program.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, speaking at a conference on Tuesday, said that even if the agreement is successfully revived, “Israel is, of course, not a party to it and will not be held by it.”

The New York Times reported on Sunday that American officials claimed when speaking to Israeli representatives that Israel’s clandestine operations against the Iranian program were counterproductive. Tehran, they asserted, had been able to rebuild and improve facilities damaged in attacks allegedly carried out by Israel.

Dr. Raz Zimmt, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies and an expert on Iran, told The Media Line the Iranian “rhetoric is not simply empty words, because the Iranian side is without a doubt at least debating” whether or not to return to the agreement.

“I think that it is pretty clear that the upcoming round in Vienna … is mainly a round that will be used by the new Iranian team to express its assertive stance, if only to signal outward and inward, in Iran, that what was is not what will be, and that this is a new government with a new team, determined to secure more significant concessions from the other side,” Zimmt says.

Iranian seriousness could likely be gauged after the negotiation team returns to Tehran, he believes. If the Iranian government expresses flexibility on the two core disagreements mentioned above, it is reasonable to assume that the Islamic Republic intends to return to the accord. However, continued insistence on American guarantees and a unilateral lifting of sanctions – which the US cannot accept, says Zimmt – will indicate that Iran has reached a strategic decision not to revive the JCPOA.

To these two central issues, Zimmt adds a third major hurdle on the way to a revived deal. “In effect, the Iranians aren’t willing to return to the original agreement” at all, he says. Tehran is insisting that advances made after attacks on Iranian facilities – such as new and improved centrifuges at Natanz – will not be reversed. This means that their nuclear program would, in fact, be in a more advanced stage even under a revived agreement.

If the talks fail, Zimmt sees two paths forward. The first is a limited, “less for less,” agreement, which would see partial sanctions relief for Iran in exchange for Iranian acceptance of partial restrictions on their activities.

“If this doesn’t happen,” he says, “then we are indeed talking about ‘Plan B.’” It isn’t very clear what that plan is, he says, but from American statements, it seems it stands for stricter enforcement of the sanctions.

A military option has also been left on the table, although Zimmt believes that the US “isn’t at that stage at this point.” Ultimately, however, he doubts that either option, stricter enforcement or a military response, will have much effect.

Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, expressed greater confidence in Iranian interest in reaching an agreement.

“I think that both sides do genuinely want to see if the diplomatic track works. I think that a lot of the back and forth before, the posturing before the talks begin, are obviously aimed at strengthening their hands as they enter into the talks,” Vatanka told The Media Line.

The Americans, Vatanka explains, are “getting close to accepting the fact that if the diplomatic track doesn’t work, all that the US can do is continue the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign on Iran, impose more sanctions, with the realization that it’s not going to stop Iran from continuing its nuclear program if it chooses to, and it can probably weaponize at some point if it chooses to.

“Even a limited US military action is not going to stop this program at this point. I mean that’s the stark realization. The Israelis can’t do it on their own either,” he says.

The Iranians, on the other hand, may believe that they could allow the talks to end in failure. “Their confidence seems to be resting in the fact that they think they can weather this. They think that they can take more sanctions but that eventually, the world is changing in the sense that at some point in the foreseeable future the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign on Iran will unravel,” Vatanka says.

At the same time, he believes that “they do seem to want a deal, they want the best possible deal.” This desire is propelled in part by a wish to outdo the previous government of Hassan Rouhani, considered as belonging to the moderate camp, he says.

Vatanka warns that “it would be prudent for the Iranians to maybe at this point stop with the ‘looking tough’ and the scoring political points … and be more realistic about what needs to be done to get these talks on the 29rd of November to at least result in more talks. I mean, nobody expects these talks on the day to result in anything, but hopefully, it won’t be the end of the talks.”

If the Iranian negotiators, directed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, allow the talks to end at an impasse, not only the Raisi government, but the Iranian regime in its entirety will be taking a gamble.

The “shattered Iranian economy is creating the sort of anger that you see come out in the street, and that is the regime’s weak spot that nobody talks about,” Vatanka adds.

“The Iranian protests are not going away and that’s the elephant in the room for Ayatollah Khamenei, who is sort of the captain of the ship in Tehran. He needs to figure out – even if the Americans are not going to bomb Iran, even if the Chinese and the Russians are going to continue to buy enough Iranian goods to keep that economy alive: Is that enough for the regime to survive in the long term? My sentiment is no, it’s a huge risk for him,” Vatanka says.

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