In the end, it will all come down to the hardliners in Washington and Tehran.
Months of indirect talks between the United States and Iran have failed to bring either country back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action after Donald Trump, in one of the biggest goals of his presidency, pulled out of the pact in 2018 and imposed harsh sanctions on the Persian Gulf nation. Tehran responded by expanding its nuclear program in violation of the agreement.
That there is no deal – and no firm prospect of having one before the self-imposed mid-February deadline – is making everyone nervous. Led by the five other world powers still party to the deal, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom, the talks intensified in January and are now at what negotiators describe as the final stage. A senior US State Department official told a Monday briefing that the process was entering “the final part”.
Iran wants sanctions lifted. The United States wants Tehran to return its advanced centrifuges and stockpiles. Then there are questions about sequencing, the order in which each step will occur. If these cannot be resolved, the US official said the world would face “a reality of growing tensions and crises”. Even senior Israeli leaders, whose previous government campaigned fiercely against the pact, “now regret the withdrawal of the JCPOA and call it a terrible mistake”, the official said.
Relaunching the 2015 deal is a high-stakes game. If that fails, Iran could be the next country to pull out of the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, like North Korea did in 2003, said Ankit Panda, Stanton’s senior fellow on the program. of nuclear policy from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This would jeopardize any progress in developing a nuclear-weapon-free zone for the Middle East, he noted. (That aside from Israel, which, as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated in its 2021 report, has 90 nuclear weapons.) It could also spur other countries, particularly Saudi Saudi Arabia, to follow suit.
Since the US withdrew from the deal, Iran has made significant progress in its nuclear program – particularly in the past 12 months – including increasing uranium enrichment to 60%, its highest level ever achieved. Although there is no evidence of weaponization, the escape time (what it would take for Iran to produce enough weapons-grade enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon) is no more than a matter of weeks, instead of a year. It’s impossible, Panda told me, to “unlearn” these advances. “It’s knowledge they’ve gained that can be used to further develop weapons.”
Even an interim pact, which some Iran watchers say has been offered on the sidelines but is not a preferred option, will require serious inducement for the hardliners of President Ebrahim Raisi’s regime to accept. This will involve allowing the nation, with the world’s No. 2 oil and gas reserves, to return to international markets. A more difficult request is Raisi’s demand for guarantees that a future US administration will not walk away from the deal like Trump did. It would be impossible for President Joe Biden to get along with Iranian hawks in his own party, let alone Republicans.
Given Iran’s mastery of advanced centrifuges, the country should also dismantle the machines, “destroy the corresponding electronic infrastructure and silence their assembly lines”, the International Crisis Group wrote in its report of 17 January on the talks. Tehran says these actions go beyond its JCPOA commitments.
US sanctions under its “maximum pressure” stance have made life unbearable for Iranians, a far cry from the “resistance economy” myth perpetuated by the regime. But while much has been said about the threat of Iran’s nuclear development to the United States and Israel, tensions in the wider region are also on the rise. In the third attack in a month, the United Arab Emirates intercepted a ballistic missile fired by Iran-backed Houthi fighters on Monday, a further blowback from its involvement in Yemen’s nearly seven-year war. While the UAE is mostly out of the conflict, like the United States last year, Saudi Arabia continued its bombing campaign and suffered rebel-led attacks on its oil installations.
Other Gulf states are stepping up their diplomatic efforts to try to bring the deal closer to reality and settle their own differences with Iran. Qatari leader Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani met Biden at the White House on Monday in the first visit by a Gulf Cooperation Council chief since he took over as president. You hope the nuclear pact was on their agenda, along with Ukraine and Afghanistan. This follows a Jan. 27 visit to Tehran by Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani shortly after his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amirabdollahian, said Iran would consider direct negotiations with Washington if a ” good agreement” was proposed.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Monday that his government had presented negotiators in Vienna with a written initiative that could lead to a “reliable and lasting agreement” if Washington accepted, according to the news agency. of the Islamic Republic.
But for now, the negotiators have passed the blame on to their political leaders for the next step. A failure to return to the agreement will be a significant step backwards in averting a nuclear arms race, which is a risk neither side can afford. As Sanam Vakil, Deputy Director and Senior Fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, told me: “The United States and Iran are the main players in this drama – they need to talk to each other.
Hopefully that happens and Biden and Raisi are able to win over their domestic audiences and get back into the fold. We will all be much safer because of this.
Ruth Pollard is a columnist and editor at Bloomberg Opinion. Previously, she was the South and Southeast Asia Government Team Leader at Bloomberg News. She has reported from India and across the Middle East and focused on foreign policy, defense and security.