Iran nuclear talks — Is West Asia being dragged to the edge of conflict?

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New Delhi, Dec 8: The first round of the renewed talks relating to reviving the nuclear agreement with Iran was suspended on December 3 after four days of fractious deliberations.

The US and the European Union (EU) diplomats immediately went into a frenzied full-throated denunciation of Iran, backed by strongly worded reports from Israel of advanced military preparations to attack the Islamic Republic. West Asia once again seems to be at the edge of a region-wide conflict.

Tehran, the EU diplomats said, is “walking back” on all the achievements of the earlier six rounds of discussions in Vienna in April-June 2021, when the negotiations were suspended on the eve of presidential elections in Iran. Now, five months later, the representatives of the P4+1 nations — Russia, China, the UK and France plus Germany and the EU — had met Iranian negotiators again in Vienna on November 29.

After elections, Iran fielded a new team led by Deputy Foreign Minister, Ali Bagheri Kani. As was the case earlier, the US delegation was in Vienna, but did not directly participate in the discussions — the EU representative, who chaired the meetings, carried messages between the delegations meeting formally in the Coburg Palace hotel and the US team located in another hotel.

US criticisms and Israeli sabre-rattling

The negotiations were abruptly suspended on December 3 to give a chance to all participants to consult with their governments and return, a week later, possibly with fresh instructions. That is when the recriminations began from the Western diplomats. They pointed out that Iran had “interrupted (the earlier) negotiations” and had since then “fast-forwarded its nuclear programme”, while backtracking “on the diplomatic progress made earlier”.

US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken said Iran “does not seem to be serious about doing what’s necessary to return to compliance”, skilfully ignoring the fact that it was the US, under President Donald Trump, which had withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) when Iran had been in full compliance with its provisions, and had then imposed the harshest possible sanctions, ostensibly to obtain a “better” agreement.

Later, on December 4, an unidentified state department official addressed a press conference in Washington where he set out the American view of the imbroglio. His main points were:

Iran had deliberately delayed returning to the talks in order to accelerate its nuclear programme “in particularly provocative ways”; this situation was not acceptable.

Iran had placed “new demands” at the renewed discussions which confirmed that it was not seriously thinking “of a rapid return to mutual compliance”; thus, Iran was denying its own people the benefits of sanctions relief.

Iran’s “new demands” included sanctions relief that goes “well beyond the scope of the JCPOA”.

The uranium enrichment that Iran has achieved (20 per cent at the Fordow facility, followed by a further 60 per cent enrichment) was to “extract more from us (the US) and give less (on) their part. … This negotiating tactic will backfire” as sections of world opinion that had earlier been sympathetic to Iran will now realise that Iran has little interest in returning to the JCPOA.

While the US will continue to pursue the negotiations at Vienna, “we are prepared to … use other tools when necessary if Iran is not prepared to come back to a mutual return to compliance”.

In regard to the re-opening of dialogue with Iran, Israel had two concerns: one, that the negotiators would make, too, many concessions to accommodate Iran, and, two, the US would accept an interim agreement involving a partial lifting of sanctions to get Iran to end its enrichment programme and accept full IAEA oversight. Israel feared that even partial relief of sanctions would be sufficient for Iran, with the financial resources now available, to pursue its nuclear programme and its aggressive posture in the region.

To address both concerns, during the talks, Israel spread the news that Iran was upgrading its uranium enrichment to 90 per cent, the weapons-grade level. The Iranian spokesman at the Vienna talks rejected the Israeli reports as seeking “to poison the Vienna talks” and called on the negotiators to show “independence” and “political will”.

Throughout the talks and since their suspension, Israeli leaders have been at their most provocative. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called on Blinken to resist Iran’s “nuclear blackmail” and immediately terminate the dialogue in Vienna. He asserted that Israel would not repeat the earlier mistake of accepting the 2015 agreement; it would now “maintain our freedom of action” and that, even if there was an agreement, Israel “is not a party to it and is not bound by it”. In an unprecedented development, the Mossad Chief, David Barnea, added his voice by saying publicly that Israel will do “whatever it takes” to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

Defence Minister Benny Gantz said “the military option must always be on the table”. The Air Force Chief, Amikam Norkin, provided details on Israeli television of planned bombings in Iran and the readiness of the Air Force to handle diverse challenges, and asserted that “the issue (attacking Iran) has been placed high on the agenda”. Commentators report that Bennett and Gantz had directed the armed forces to prepare for an attack on Iran and to defend against retaliation, with an additional $1.4 billion being put into the defence budget.

According to recent reports, Israel is building up its “smart” bunker buster bombs to attack nuclear facilities that are deep underground and acquiring new Iron Dome missile defence interceptors to defend against Iranian missile attacks. Since Israel could also be attacked by pro-Iran militants in other neighbouring countries, its military plans are said to include attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon as well.

Amid this sound and fury, it took the Russian ambassador at the Vienna talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, to remind observers that the “disappointment … seems to be premature”; multilateral diplomacy is always a long haul in which “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, and that the break would give all sides the opportunity “to think how to proceed further, taking into account the positions of their counterparts”.

How was this stage of diplomatic and military brinkmanship reached?

Runup to Vienna

The first point to note is that Iran has a new government that is more deeply wedded to the principles of the Islamic revolution and much less trustful of the US. As the commentator Kasra Aarabi has noted, President Ebrahim Raisi and the team of senior officials he has put together constitute a “systemic change” in the political order that seeks greater Islamisation of Iranian society, more administrative efficiency and better management of the economy. It has a far greater mistrust of the West, particularly the US, and does not believe the latter has any intention of easing sanctions, even if the JCPOA is revived. Hence, renewal of the JCPOA is not a priority concern for Raisi, as it had been earlier for the Rouhani government.

The Iranian negotiator at Vienna, Ali Bagheri Kani, is at the heart of the ideological and political approach that now prevails in Tehran. He has been a sustained critic of the JCPOA. He has earlier referred to the deal as “sick child”, denied that it had the backing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, asserted that Iran had made, too, many concessions in the agreement, and had criticised those who were “simple-mindedly optimistic of the negotiations bearing any results”.

A year after the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, when in 2019 Iran saw that the other partners in the deal could not dilute the impact of the US sanctions, it began to incrementally violate specific provisions of the agreement: it installed and used a small number of advanced centrifuges that was not allowed under the JCPOA. It also produced 210 kg of uranium enriched at 19.75 per cent and 25 kg at 60 per cent, as against the enrichment percentage of 3.65 allowed under the agreement.

Finally, from the uranium enriched to 19.75 per cent, Iran produced 200g of uranium metal (UM); this metal, enriched to 90 per cent, can become the core of a nuclear weapon. These actions, though deliberately provocative, can be reversed — they are meant to strengthen Iran’s negotiating position at Vienna. The reversal of these nuclear-related violations has become the basis of the US call for “mutual compliance”, i.e, Iran’s return to the provisions on nuclear enrichment in the JCPOA being placed on par with the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and the US’ lifting of crippling sanctions to which it has subjected Iran even though the latter was in full compliance with the agreement. These sanctions have impoverished 30 million Iranians in a population of 85 million, created inflation of 60 per cent, and caused a contraction of the economy by 7 per cent from 2019 to 2020. Iran’s oil exports plunged from 2.5 million barrels per day in 2016 to 4,00,000 barrels per day under Donald Trump.

But here there is another insurmountable problem. For the US, the sanctions in question are only those imposed on the nuclear issue, and do not include the numerous other sanctions imposed for other Iranian failings — its violations of human rights, the development of ballistic missiles, its backing for “terrorist” groups (which, in the American view, include Hezbollah and Hamas), and Iran’s “interference” in the affairs of neighbouring states. In fact, the Trump administration imposed several of its sanctions on these bases, rather than on the nuclear issue. These fine distinctions mean little for Iran — its considered position is that full compliance with the JCPOA provisions means the lifting of all sanctions imposed by the Trump administration under its “maximum pressure” campaign.

On the eve of the Vienna talks, Kani set out the Iranian position clearly in an op-ed in the Financial Times. He rejected the use of the term “nuclear negotiations” since Iran was solely committed to a “legitimate and peaceful” nuclear programme. The principal issue at Vienna, he said, was “to gain a full, guaranteed and verifiable removal of sanctions”. He also rejected the term “mutual compliance” since it was the US that had unilaterally withdrawn from the agreement. He emphasised, instead, that the US should prioritise “compensation for the violation of the deal, which includes the removal of all post-JCPOA sanctions”. He also reminded his interlocutors that Iran had not succumbed to military threats, economic sanctions or “maximum pressure” under Trump and would not do so under Biden.

In this background, it is not surprising that at Vienna, Iran submitted two proposals — one, relating to the lifting of sanctions by the US, and the second relating to the process by which Iran would return to full compliance with the JCPOA. The Iranian delegation said that once these two proposals had been complied with, it would submit a third paper relating to the levels of oil exports and foreign currency transactions that would indicate that sanctions had been effectively lifted.

Future of the JCPOA

On the eve of the renewal of the suspended talks in Vienna, it is difficult to predict whether the principals involved — Iran and the US — will come up with fresh, more accommodative, ideas and approaches, given that their first encounter could have involved some degree of posturing and presentation of maximalist positions.

Commentators have used the short hiatus to throw up some new suggestions. Thus, the distinguished writer on regional affairs, Robert Hunter, has proposed that the US simply rejoin the JCPOA that it had unilaterally left in 2018 and then pursue its agenda within the framework of the agreement. This would still leave unsettled the issue of which sanctions to lift — though, of course, the US could start with those connected with the nuclear issues and thus create a better atmosphere in which other matters could be discussed. Recalling that it was a Republican President, egged on by the then Israeli Prime Minister, who created this crisis in the first place, Hunter has urged Biden to show “a little domestic political courage” and rejoin the deal, as he had promised during the election campaign.

The other idea being proposed is for the US to go for an interim agreement. This would require the US to lift some sanctions in return for Iran’s reversal of its enrichment programme. But this, as noted above, is fiercely opposed by Israel and is unlikely to find support in the US, in light of the weak political position of the President and the polarised nature of US politics.

The distinguished authority on Iranian affairs, Trita Parsi, has suggested that, given the inability of the principals to move forward in any meaningful manner, the JCPOA be placed in a “coma”, ie, neither repudiated nor taken forward, until a more propitious political situation emerges at some future date. The problem with this proposal is that, due to fast-moving developments in West Asia and the deep rivalries, animosities and “existential” threats that animate them, the nuclear issue just cannot be placed in a coma. If Iran continues to pursue enrichment, a frenzied Israel, backed by its powerful lobby in the US, will certainly mobilise support for war, even if sage advisers would suggest that war is actually not a viable option.

The well-known Israeli intelligence and security commentator, Yossi Melman, has written about the serious difficulties in conducting a successful military operation to destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities. He has also pointed out that, even if these facilities were destroyed, Iran would simply rebuild them within a year or two. Given that no agreement on enrichment or sanctions is likely at Vienna, the best course, Melman argues, is for the US to provide Israel (and other regional allies) with a guaranteed nuclear umbrella — this would protect Israel from a nuclear threat from Iran, while leaving it with the freedom to protect its interests through conventional means, including through secret operations.

Outlook for the regional order

As of now, it is difficult to be optimistic about the outcome of the discussions in Vienna. The level of mistrust and even mutual animosity between the two protagonists is so great that a meeting of minds on the issues of enrichment and sanctions, complicated further by other attendant differences accumulated over the last few decades, would be unlikely. It is possible that, like earlier initiatives to promote understanding between these nations, divided over four decades, the JCPOA, too, will go into the dustbin of history.

The Iranian side appears to have understood that the revival of the nuclear agreement will not serve its interests. For instance, to avoid a repeat of the experience with Trump, Iran has been insisting that guarantees be offered by the US so that future administrations will not unilaterally walk away from the agreement as Trump had done in 2018. Biden, with his weak political situation, is in no position to offer such a guarantee; in fact, he cannot offer this guarantee even for his own term. Absent such a guarantee, the US re-entering the JCPOA means very little for Iran. As France’s former ambassador to the UN, Gerard Araud has pointed out: “Even if the JCPOA was restored, no Western company would dare invest a cent in Iran, no western bank would finance any deal in Iran with the threat of the return of US sanctions in 2025. … The Iranians know it.”

Hence, the Raisi administration has signalled a new direction for Iran’s interests — Asia. Soon after his appointment, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said he would pursue “a balanced, active, dynamic, and smart foreign policy based on mutual respect, prioritising of relations with neighbours and Asia … and the strengthening of the role of economic diplomacy and international trade”. In early December, the Raisi government announced an economic roadmap that includes new investments to create 1.8 million new jobs by March 2023, construction on four million new housing units, and doubling of non-crude oil exports to $70 billion by 2025. Thus, despite the harm done to the national economy by US sanctions, Iran is signalling a new confidence in its economic future.

As Iran gets increasingly estranged from the Western powers, it is likely to find greater comfort in an alignment with China and Russia. Both these powers have backed Iran at Vienna. When the talks were suspended on December 3, Russian ambassador Ulyanov supported Iran’s insistence on guarantees that the US would not withdraw from the JCPOA in future. He said: “The requirement of the Iranians for guarantees is absolutely clear and justified. There must be a certainty that the malicious experiment which was done under Donald Trump with the ‘maximum pressure’ policy … is not repeated.”

China has also supported Iran. On the eve of the Vienna talks, China’s ambassador to the UN and other international organisations in Vienna, Wang Qun, had linked western criticism of uranium enrichment by Iran to the AUKUS contract; he had asked: “Why do the US and UK say Iran can’t enrich uranium beyond 3.7 per cent, while, on the other hand, they plan to transfer tonnes of highly enriched material to AUKUS?” He has described western conduct as “double standard” and “nuclear hypocrisy”. This was a reference to the weapons-grade uranium that the US and Britain are committed to provide as fuel for the nuclear-powered submarines they are contracted to supply Australia.

Later, on November 30, the Chinese ambassador called on the US to lift all sanctions that were not compatible with the nuclear deal, including restrictions on Iran-China trade, a reference to the US’ secondary sanctions that restrict economic ties of third countries with Iran.

The political feebleness of the Biden administration in being unable to reverse the harm done to Iran and to the regional order seems to be strengthening the bonds between the nations the US has castigated and demonised and has perhaps accelerated the shaping of a rival alignment that will be at the centre of the new order.

(The author is the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE and holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)

(The content is being carried under an arrangement with indianarrative.com)

–indianarrative

20211208-151243

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