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Iran Nuclear Talks Back On The Table: the Regional Impact

ARTICLES - 2 December 2021

Critical negotiations between Iran and the nuclear powers (plus Germany, and indirectly, the US) resumed in Vienna on November 29, after a six-month hiatus. 

Is there a way out of this policy brinkmanship?

The Iranians were clearly playing for time. They pointed out that the Vienna talks first resumed in April, conveniently two months after President Biden’s inauguration and four months after his election. The second time around, the Iranians got to do the same: the Raissi administration in Iran was inaugurated in August, after the presidential elections in June. Each of the two parties used the time at their disposal to build a new negotiating team and to further review the details of the deal. 

In April, the aim of the Democrats in Washington was to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) that Trump had left. However, President Ebrahim Raisi’s hardline administration in Tehran is seen as less favorable to the JCPOA - at least in its discourse. The new Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, is viewed as being close to the Revolutionary Guard, although he does not belong to the most extreme conservative wing. Finally, Ali Bagheri-Khani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, lacks both the competence and the agility of mind of his predecessor, Abbas Araghchi.

The conclusions of the review conducted by the new Iranian government are presently unknown. Yet according to the Raissi administration spokespeople, it appears that Iran does not accept the June results of the negotiations. They would rather have a new renegotiation to include the lifting of all US sanctions, considered a prerequisite for any progress. The spokespeople also emphasized their wish to unfreeze $10 billion of Iranian assets held in foreign banks, and a guarantee that sanctions will not return.

It seems like the Iranians see the progress they have made in their nuclear program as having given them strong leverage in negotiating.

There are other worrying signs about the negotiation prospects. Currently, the Iranians are continuing to evade the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) controls. Despite two visits to Tehran by IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, no agreement was reached to restore access for IAEA inspectors to the Karaj centrifuge assembly facility. By following their theory of "less for less", the Iranians have continued their program of activities prohibited by the JCPOA. 

Some American experts have estimated that the "breakout" period for the Islamic Republic to obtain a nuclear weapon is now one month, as opposed to one year under the JCPOA. 

But what is Tehran’s objective? The assumption remains that the regime cannot afford indefinite sanctions. Inflation has reached 40%, with the farmers’ demonstrations in Isfahan serving as a reminder of the disastrous state of the country, in spite of the relative success of the "Resistance Economy". The new leadership, however, may want to get as close as possible to a "threshold state" status, by increasingly strengthening its orientations towards China and Russia, and by playing with time, as is both its habit and its talent. 

For the Americans, their interest in the JCPOA’s survival under current conditions is diminishing. Some parts of the 2015 agreement expire in a year and a half. It remains to be seen whether it is necessary to resurrect an agreement that is in such bad shape (and whose extension the Iranians stubbornly refuse to consider). Moreover, how can US political leaders ignore the strong skepticism demonstrated by Congress? The idea of an "interim agreement" is therefore emerging among experts. This would involve freezing the Iranian program in exchange for US concessions on sanctions. However, Iranian spokespeople have already rejected this rather minimal and still unofficial option.

For the time being, it appears that we are entering a phase of great uncertainty, in line with the political brinkmanship to which the region has become familiar. The Iranian leadership cannot ignore the fact that Israel (with continued US support and new encouragement by new Arab countries), will seek to hinder Iranian progress through targeted assassinations and "accidents" in Iranian facilities, or even through selective military attacks. Authorities in Tehran seem willing to pay this price.
Indeed, it is striking just how higher the tolerance threshold has become for so-called "low intensity" tensions, both for the Iranians and Americans. A few years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine General Qasem Soleimani’s assassination (at the head of the Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) in a US-led strike, and Iran producing 60% enriched uranium without a major confrontation. The risk of such an explosion remains more likely than ever.

Regional negotiations in progress 

Such a risk may have been taken into account by Tehran. It is likely one of the reasons why the Iranian leadership has been willing to develop bilateral dialogues with its neighbors - including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), despite the establishment of diplomatic relations between Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem. With Qatar and Oman, ties are more firmly established. Perhaps even more surprisingly, several rounds of talks have been held between the Saudis and Iranians under Iraqi auspices. 

The new Iranian government has made regional rapprochement a central policy goal. In addition to the precautionary motive in anticipation of future upheavals in the region, other reasons explain this choice. From an economic perspective, there is the desire to circumvent sanctions. Politically, there is the aim of pre-empting regional discussions that the Americans and Europeans are asking for alongside a return to the JCPOA. Interestingly enough, in addition to the Gulf States, Egypt and others also wish to resume the dialogue with Iran. This is explained by similar reasons to those Tehran acted on, reinforced by increased doubts over US security guarantees. The hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August was perceived with shock in the Gulf States, following the notable absence of US reaction to the Houthi strikes against Aramco in March 2021. The withdrawal hastened the Gulf’s desire to diversify partnerships and turn to trusted interlocutors.

The limits of the current negotiations have nevertheless become apparent. In particular, Iranian-Saudi talks have not led to any progress regarding the Yemeni crisis, from which Saudi Arabia now wants out.

In Syria, a complicated situation is emerging, with several Arab countries (including Jordan and the UAE) renewing their ties with the Assad regime. This is intended to counter Irani influence in Syria. Mr. Amirabdollahian nonetheless welcomed UAE’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahya’s recent visit to Damascus, the first in ten years. Another limitation of current regional negotiations is that they are bilateral in nature, without a multilateral, regional forum currently established. 

Another limitation of current regional negotiations is that they are bilateral in nature, without a multilateral, regional forum currently established. 

On this last point, two qualifications must be made. On the one hand, the Baghdad summit organized by Iraq and France brought together all states in the region (except Syria) on August 28, 2021. French diplomacy will continue to strive to make this "Baghdad format" bear fruit. It may be the case that Iraq’s stability is in the common interest of all its neighbors. Thus, in the aftermath of the early-November attack on the residence of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustapha al-Khadimi, the Iranians have attempted to rein in the Iraqi Shiite militias. On the other hand, the political directors of the E3 group (Germany, France, United Kingdom) and Rob Mallet, the US JCPOA negotiator, met with representatives of the Gulf States to discuss Iran on November 18, 2021 in Riyadh. Encouragement in developing regional negotiations - including with Iran - was part of the message from the E3 and US envoys, marking a new approach from Washington.

On this occasion, the French representative presented a potential structuring of regional discussions around three areas: 

  • confidence-building measures to reduce tension; 
  • "hard" security issues including missiles and drones, where the Iranians are in a strong position and refuse any discussion related to the JCPOA; 
  • a more general forum that addresses economic, climate, health, migration and other issues in a region that faces common problems.

President Macron is scheduled to visit the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia on December 3-4, 2021, where he will likely promote this agenda as a basis for discussions. The Russians, among others, are also active in getting the regional actors to talk to each other. Previously, the significance of such discourse would have been a potential for progress on the nuclear issue. However, the links between those twin tracks are perhaps less clear today.

 

Copyright: ALEX HALADA / AFP

 

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