Analysis: Nuclear talks at the crossroads

Ayatollah Khamenei. Image Credit: Tasnim News, CC BY 4.0.

Negotiations with Iran surrounding its nuclear programme have reached a “decisive moment”, the US and European countries have warned. The warning comes amid speculation that Tehran is deliberately foot-dragging while its efforts to become a nuclear power gain speed.

What happened

  • “We are indeed at a decisive moment,” the US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, said late last week. While he said some progress had been made, he added: “But we are not where we need to be. And if we don’t get there very soon, we will have to take a different course.”
  • Britain, France and Germany sounded similar warnings. The french foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, suggested: “It’s been almost two months since the negotiations resumed in Vienna … Negotiations cannot continue at such a slow pace while in parallel the Iranian nuclear programme is advancing so quickly. We will very quickly find ourselves in an untenable situation.”
  • In December, European negotiators said the talks were “rapidly reaching the end of the road”.
  • After the Trump administration quit the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nearly four years ago, Iran increased both its stockpiles of uranium and their purity. Repeatedly breaching the 3.67% purity limit set by the accords, Tehran is enriching to 60% – just short of 90% weapons-grade uranium. It also installed advanced centrifuges, including at the Fordow nuclear facility, where enrichment was banned, and halted cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran’s adherence to the agreement.
  • While the 2015 agreement ensured a “breakout time” – the period required by Tehran to produce enough fissile material to fuel a nuclear weapon – of more than one year, that has now been reduced to around three weeks, according to the independent Arms Control Association. However, the “weaponisation stage” – steps such as assembling the bomb on a ballistic missile and miniaturising the warhead – will take an additional 1-2 years, it is estimated.
  • The talks in Vienna – at which Iran’s hardline government refuses to negotiate directly with the United States – remain stalled by a number of sticking points, including the fate of Tehran’s nuclear materials and technical knowledge, the lifting of sanctions imposed under Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, and guarantees that future US administrations will not again leave the agreement. There are also disputes surrounding US citizens held by Iran.
  • According to media reports, there are divisions within the US State Department over how to respond to Iran’s apparent intransigence.

Tehran takes its time

Speculation is mounting that Iran is intentionally dragging out the negotiations in order to drive its nuclear programme forward, thus making the 2015 agreement essentially redundant. Despite Washington’s offers, it refuses, for instance, to negotiate directly with the US, forcing the Europeans, Russia and China to act as intermediaries. Instead, Tehran says the US must “change course” and return to the nuclear deal before it will enter face-to-face negotiations. Following the election of the hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as president in June 2021, Iran suspended the talks, which had only begun two months before, and didn’t return to the negotiating table until November. According to media reports, when the Iranians did resume the negotiations, they rowed back on a number of compromises previously hammered out with the government of Raisi’s more moderate predecessor, Hassan Rouhani. Tehran also chose that very moment to announce its intention to begin using advanced centrifuges at Fordow. Moreover, attempts this month by Russia to broker some form of “interim deal” – undertaken with the knowledge of the US, despite the Biden administration’s scepticism about them – have faltered in the face of resistance from Iran, reports this week suggested. Such a deal would see Tehran accepting some restrictions on its nuclear programme in return for limited sanctions relief.

Sticking points

The negotiations remain bogged down by a number of key sticking points:

  • Iran is angling to have all sanctions lifted, while the US is insisting that only those related to the nuclear deal should go, while others – for instance, those connected to Tehran’s domestic human rights record or support for terrorism – will remain in place. Additionally, the two sides disagree about how the lifting of sanctions should be verified: Iran reportedly wants a longer process, with benchmarks, before it stops enriching uranium, while the US says Tehran can verify sanctions have been lifted in a shorter time frame of 48 hours. One potential option, it has been suggested, would be for the US Office of Foreign Asset Control to issue guidance on how to do business with Iran and to publish the repealing of relevant executive orders.
  • “There must be a serious and sufficient guarantee that the US, which is not trustworthy, will not leave the JCPOA again,” Iranian foreign minister Amir Abdollahian insisted in November. However, US administrations cannot bind their successors, with the State Department suggesting: “There is no such thing as a guarantee in diplomacy and international affairs. We can speak for this administration, but this administration has been very clear that we are prepared to return to full compliance with the JCPOA and to stay in full compliance with the JCPOA as long as Iran does the same.” Indeed, only a treaty – ratified by two-thirds of the US Senate – would provide an undertaking that, unless it were later nullified by a Senate vote, could tie-in a future US administration. Joe Biden, however, would stand no chance of getting such a treaty through the deeply divided Senate. Nonetheless, suggests the Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov, this sticking point could indicate Iran’s seriousness about striking a deal. “If Iran insists on a permanent guarantee for the JCPOA, it could be a sign it is looking for an excuse to continue drawing out the negotiations with no progress. If it is willing to accept other, creative assurances, then it could mean Tehran is serious about the talks,” she wrote this week.
  • Another knotty issue surrounds what to do with the excess enriched uranium Iran has generated in breach of the JCPOA since 2018, as well as the technical know-how and equipment, such as advanced centrifuges, it has developed. Should centrifuges banned by the JCPOA, for instance, be destroyed or, as Iran demands, simply dismantled and stored? Either way, Tehran will have to allow the IAEA full access to its nuclear sites once again, and turn over the memory cards on cameras installed at those sites, which it has refused to allow inspectors sight of.
  • Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have arrested a number of foreign and dual national citizens on espionage and security-related changes in recent years, using them, say human rights groups, as a form of diplomatic leverage. On Sunday, the lead US negotiator, Robert Malley, indicated Washington would be unlikely to return to the agreement until four Americans being held in Iran were released. Iran said in response it wouldn’t accept American “preconditions”, describing Malley’s comments as driven by domestic political reasons.

Iran’s cost-of-living squeeze crisis

Iran’s economy suffered a sharp shock when Trump reimposed sanctions in 2018 but growth has since returned. However, with the value of the rial halving in four years, inflation estimated to be running at 40-50 percent, and basic goods, like bread, meat, and dairy, and utilities, such as electricity and natural gas, soaring in price, the Iranian people are suffering an intense cost-of-living crisis. Raisi is determined, however, not to link the economy to the nuclear negotiations. Instead, he’s vowed to build a “resistance economy” resting on self-sufficiency and closer ties to China and Russia.

US splits

On Monday, the State Department confirmed that the US deputy special envoy for Iran, Richard Nephew, had left the American negotiating team. The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that Nephew wanted to see the US negotiators to take a tougher stance towards Iran in the talks.

The view from Israel

Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett has adopted a softer tone in his public statements about the negotiations, largely eschewing the megaphone diplomacy embraced by Benjamin Netanyahu.

  • Israel remains highly sceptical of whether a deal will protect its interests. This week, the annual report of the respected Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies labelled Iran “the most serious external threat to Israel, first and foremost due to its quest to achieve military nuclear capability.”
  • Bennett has made clear Israel won’t be bound by any agreement. However, he’s also suggested: “We are not automatic naysayers. We’re taking a practical approach,” he said last month.
  • If the talks break down, the US is likely to increase its military presence in the region, while stopping short of a strike on Iran. Israel has made clear that it doesn’t rule out taking unilateral military against Iranian nuclear facilities, as it did in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. However, any operation would be much more difficult and less guaranteed of success than those earlier strikes, especially given that Tehran has well-protected its enrichment facilities.

What happens next?

In an analysis, Haaretz columnist Zvi Bar’el struck a slightly more optimistic note, arguing that both Washington and Tehran have a strong motivation to reach a deal and neither wishes to be seen as having scuppered the talks. “The future of the talks now depends on how much progress is achieved in the coming days or, rather, on how ‘progress’ is interpreted,” he wrote last week. “Since none of the parties wishes to be accused of foiling the negotiations and thwarting the chance of a deal, the important question will be whether Iranian-American agreement can be reached regarding the definition of progress, so that the parties do not opt to drop out of the talks, even if it means extending how much time is allotted for them.”