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With Progress Reported in Nuclear Talks, Tehran Again Demands All Sanctions Be Lifted

With Progress Reported in Nuclear Talks, Tehran Again Demands All Sanctions Be Lifted

Signing a new deal won’t usher in a new era of Iranian regional policy, professor says

After many months and countless hours of talks in Vienna on reviving the 2015 nuclear agreement, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said Monday that “significant progress” had been made.

Progress in the efforts to restore the deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program had been stalling, but recent remarks by officials from parties involved in the talks have produced headlines saying a deal may be imminent.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, speaking at the annual Munich Security Conference over the weekend, said there was “the chance to reach an agreement that will allow sanctions to be lifted.”

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, speaking at the same venue, said his country was ready for a deal “if the other side makes the needed political decision.”

If I had to bet, I’d say we are very close to an agreement

Gary Sick, a senior research scholar and adjunct professor of Middle East Politics at Columbia University, told The Media Line he sees these statements “as part of the negotiations process.”

“If I had to bet, I’d say we are very close to an agreement,” says Sick, who served on the National Security Council under three US presidents.

“What we are seeing here is a classic case of two parties each of whom is negotiating what appears to be a foreign policy issue. But in reality, it’s a domestic political issue,” he says.

Talks on reviving the pact, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), restarted after several months’ hiatus due to presidential elections in Iran last June.

The talks, which resumed in the Austrian capital in late November, include Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia directly, and the United States indirectly.

Tehran has repeatedly insisted that Washington must lift its crippling sanctions.

“The Iranians have said we are disgusted with the Americans because they walked away from the deal, and we are going to insist that we get certain assurances before we go ahead [and sign],” says Sick.

President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the nuclear accord in 2018, saying it was not tough enough in curtailing Iran’s weapons ambitions. The Trump Administration then reimposed heavy economic sanctions.

“The whole problem is due to Trump. Basically, the fact that he walked away from the agreement has left us [the US] with one, a very bad, negotiating position, because we look like the party that walked away from the agreement even when it was working. This reduces our leverage in terms of the negotiation structure,” Sick says.

And because of that, “the Iranians now have promised their people a tougher position,” he says.

As president of the United States he [Biden] is doing the right thing in negotiating a deal, and to just simply allow them to continue to violate the JCPOA and continue to keep increasing the uranium enrichment level is the worst outcome of all

Kanishkan Sathasivam, a professor of international relations and director of the William H. Bates Center for Public and Global Affairs at Salem State University, near Boston, told The Media Line that with an agreement possibly being inked in the coming days or weeks, the Islamic Republic wants to “reap the benefits of a new deal.”

He says giving Tehran complete sanctions relief would harm US efforts to negotiate with it in the future, as it would take away the US government’s ability to pressure the Iranians on other outstanding issues.

But Sathasivam says an accord is extremely necessary and timely.

“As president of the United States he [Biden] is doing the right thing in negotiating a deal, and to just simply allow them to continue to violate the JCPOA and continue to keep increasing the uranium enrichment level is the worst outcome of all. The fact that they are at 60% enrichment and are willing to go up to 90% if there is no deal is dangerous.”

Sathasivam, whose focus is on international security and conflict, admits he has been a critic of the JCPOA. He felt strongly that the deal negotiated in 2015 had “fundamental flaws” that made no deal better than making one. He supports negotiating with the Iranians and coming up with a deal, but not at any price.

“I understood that some sort of a deal with the Iranians was necessary, but two major points made it a weak deal. First, the sunset clauses that put time frames on how long things will last, and that certain restrictions on Iranian activities would automatically go away. I always have felt that a trigger should have been included,” he says.

The 2015 accord only “postponed” when Iran will get nuclear bombs, he adds.

Sathasivam says that after a specific period, Tehran’s commitment to a deal should be reviewed, and based on the results, it should be decided whether it will get any sanctions relief.

“It shouldn’t be automatic when a clock runs out, [that Iran] automatically gets certain benefits.”

Another “weak” point he highlights: “There had to have been some linkage with the other concerns that we have with the Iranians, such as Iranian meddling in the internal domestic politics of neighboring states, and its support of extremist groups and pursuit of long-range ballistic and cruise missiles.”

These items can’t be separated, because the sanctions that the US and other countries imposed are “interrelated,” Sathasivam explains.

The Iranians are demanding that all sanctions be removed, while global powers are saying some sanctions are related to terrorism, while others are connected to the ballistic missile program.

“The US and its European allies are saying that Iran can’t categorize or classify the sanctions,” he says, insisting that if “you can’t compartmentalize the sanctions, then you can’t compartmentalize the issues.

“I don’t understand why our leaders don’t have the guts, the strength to tell the Iranians, ‘You want complete sanctions relief, but in exchange, we should completely address all of our concerns,’” says Sathasivam.

Meanwhile, Sick says, the United States was very slow in addressing the issue of resuming talks on the accord.

Biden had said during this campaign that rejoining the JCPOA was one of the things he would do first as president. He became president, and more than a year later, he still hasn’t rejoined the deal, and a slew of domestic issues have prevented his administration from formalizing an agreement, Sick says.

Also, the US is distracted by other foreign issues, such as the Russian-Ukraine crisis.

The US was again left in a poor negotiating position. The reason Biden didn’t immediately return to the JCPOA was that he was afraid of domestic political repercussions.

Sick says there are a lot of Democrats who are just as skeptical of the JCPOA as Republicans are.

“Biden had a very ambitious domestic agenda that he wanted to push through, and he didn’t want to offend anyone on the Democratic side,” he says.

After pulling out of the deal, the Trump Administration imposed a “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran, intensified sanctions designed to force it to sign a new, better deal, and the result, says Sick, was “nothing.”

The maximum pressure campaign not only “soiled America’s reputation as a reliable partner,” he says, “but it failed to accomplish anything. On the contrary, it brought Iran back into the nuclear business. Now Iran is closer to the weapon than in its entire history. We gave away all the benefits of the agreement and kept all the worst parts of it.”

He called withdrawing from the agreement “misbehavior, malpractice of foreign policy.”

Sick argues that if the United States and Mideast countries want to discuss issues like Iran’s support of groups such as the Houthis and Hizbullah, signing an agreement could produce an opportunity to discuss a range of issues.

“What the US needs to do is bring in the region to talk to Iran. The UAE is talking to Iran, the Saudis are talking to Iran, the Omanis have always been [doing so].”

Iran’s ultraconservative president, Ebrahim Raisi, is a personal target of the US measures. He was named in US Treasury sanctions in 2019.

The 2015 Iran agreement offered Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

Sanctions have badly hit Iran’s oil and gas revenues and the Tehran government is eager to get new investment and customers.

Israel has been a staunch opponent of the JCPOA and repeatedly cautioned that lifting the sanctions would provide Tehran with the money needed to purchase weapons that could harm Israelis and others in the region.

Tehran has always denied seeking to acquire nuclear bombs.

Speaking at the Munich gathering, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said an agreement with Iran would “not mark the end of the road,” insisting that inspections of its nuclear infrastructure must take place in the event of a deal.

Sathasivam says it’s going to be very tough for the Biden Administration to allay Israel’s and other regional allies’ concerns.

“I don’t think there’s anything politically they [the Americans] can say to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. They are not going to be satisfied with what the Biden Administration tells them. In private they will be very vocal, but publicly they won’t say much.”

He says that the two Gulf states are just as angry if not more than the Israelis about the US administration’s approach to the negotiations. If the Americans want to appease Israel, they must give it what it wants, and what Israel wants is aerial “refueling tankers, bunker-busting bombs. But Biden knows this will help Israel carry on an airstrike against Iran, which he doesn’t want,” he adds.

Sathasivam doesn’t think signing a deal would help usher in a new era of Iranian regional policy, saying he is not optimistic that Tehran is going to change its domestic or foreign approach.

“The regime is far too strong and far too entrenched for the [Iranian] public to simply be able to push them out.”

He adds that hard-liners in Iran would benefit the most from a new deal, as it would provide them an economic and financial breather and ease the domestic pressure after decades of crippling sanctions.

Also, they would use the accord to argue that Iran came out victorious over the US.

“The hard-liners will go to the public and say, ‘We won this for you. We won economic relief, we won sanctions relief by being hardcore,’” Sathasivam says.

Some observers argue that a renewed deal would embolden Iran and encourage it to continue with its current regional policy.

Says Sick, “Iran has its own foreign policy. The JCPOA was never about that. It was an agreement about one thing only, to provide early warning of any Iranian attempt to go for a [nuclear] bomb. An advance notice of one to three years, but it wasn’t about [ballistic] missiles, it wasn’t about Houthis, Lebanon or Hizbullah.”

The 2015 agreement, he says, broke the barrier of talking to Iran, and could have started new discussions about other issues if it had lasted a few more years.

For more than 30 years the US had a rule that it would not talk to Iran under any circumstances.

“It was a self-defeating process that didn’t accomplish anything. [President Barack] Obama had the courage to offer Iran a possible deal and talk to them very seriously. We got accustomed to talking to the Iranians,” the professor says.

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