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Sunday, 22 May 2022
Is there a future for the Iranian nuclear talks
Ian Black

Rob Malley, Joe Biden’s special envoy for Iran, said on December 21 that the time for a renewal of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran is running out and raising the risk of an "escalating crisis.” His message, via CNN, was clear about the US official view of the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, agreed by Barack Obama in 2015 and abandoned by Donald Trump three years later.

 Malley, a veteran US diplomat and international expert, was speaking just days after another pause in the Vienna talks, the seventh round of negotiations between Iran and the remaining parties to the JCPoA, with little visible movement toward a new agreement. The talks will resume on December 27. An awful lot hangs on these negotiations being a success – not least preventing a potentially catastrophic war in an already volatile region.

 But it is hard to be optimistic about their outcome as negative signs have multiplied in recent weeks. Several public messages are helpful in understanding the implications of a failure. Israeli pressure on the US and Iranian hostility to Israel are a toxic combination. As is Israeli determination to signal its readiness to use any means to resist Tehran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and limit its regional activities.

 That might well be the reason why a former head of Israel’s military intelligence service said recently that Mossad secret service agents had taken part in the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, claimed officially by President Donald Trump. No-one who followed that key event would have been surprised by that revelation as Soleimani was the embodiment of Iranian hostility to the west and its regional allies.

 His killing, in January 2020, a year before Biden replaced Trump, symbolized the dangers of a military confrontation between the US and Iran, with the then Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu goading the US to take action. In another recent scoop a senior US defence official was quoted as saying that Netanyahu was “willing to fight Iran to the last American soldier,” during the fallout of the Quds Force commander’s killing.

 Other stances are Iran’s demand that the sanctions imposed by Trump must be withdrawn in their entirety, part of Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran – a position the European counterparts regard as maximalist. Iran also wants a period to verify the lifting of sanctions, and guarantees the US will not renege on the accord again. 

 The central issue facing negotiators is the Iranian government’s insistence that it has no nuclear weapons programme and it is only for civilian use – despite having increasingly high levels of enrichment that are solely for military use. It is clearly using enrichment as a means of pressure. As Malley said: “Iran is nearing the capability to develop a nuclear weapon in the near future. If they continue at their current pace, we have some weeks left but not much more than that, at which point, I think, the conclusion will be that there's no deal to be revived.”

 Iranian state media quoted Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian as saying, presumably in response to Malley: “We do not see the position of some European countries as constructive, specifically that of France. When they say they are concerned about the progress of Iran's nuclear programme, we say out loud: ‘If you want to have your concerns addressed, then all sanctions must be lifted.’”

 The Vienna talks have made little progress since they resumed in early December after a five-month hiatus following the election of President Ebrahim Raisi. Hardliners like him and Amirabdollahian fear that a renewed JCPoA would increase western pressure to curb Tehran’s regional influence (in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen) and its ballistic missile programme. There was a disturbing reminder of that issue when Iran last week conducted a five-day military exercise, including ballistic missiles, and described it as a warning to threats made by the “Zionist regime”.

 Iran’s domestic politics are another relevant factor too: improved ties with the US and western allies would also improve the chances of Iranian reformers and is therefore predicted to encourage Raisi and his sponsor Ayatollah Khamenei to abandon the JCPoA.

 Messaging matters: the US is clearly signalling that its patience is running out. Iran is saying that sanctions have to be lifted. The damage done to America’s international reputation by the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan is another significant factor – as is Washington’s receding interest in the Middle East and the enormous distraction of confronting an increasingly assertive China.

 Another related one is the risk that Tehran may benefit from increasingly close ties with Beijing and use that relationship to export more oil to China and perhaps give it access to islands on the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

 The day after Malley gave his CNN interview, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan, visiting Israel, transmitting the same message, said that the Vienna talks with Tehran may be exhausted within weeks. If that happens all bets will be off for a highly sensitive and explosive issue with global implications in the course of 2022.