A Decisive Moment for the Iranian Nuclear Deal

Viktor Mikhin
IR9424Just a short while ago it seemed that the new Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran, the USA and a number of other major world powers was on the point of being signed, and all over the world people breathed a sigh of relief and welcomed the end of fear, doubt and uncertainty. But unfortunately that did not happen, and now the talks have turned into a political tug-of-war in which the outcome is far from clear – one day it seems as if the agreement is about to be signed, and the next day it becomes clear that there are major disagreements between the parties and everyone is trying to defend their own interests.

It turns out that the Vienna talks, which everyone wants to succeed, have stalled, with many complex minor issues still needing to be resolved. And these issues, it now appears, are more important than the overall goal of the talks. The devil, as they say, is in the details. And it is these details that are obstructing the signing of a new agreement or the renewal of the previous JCPOA. Even if the participants are now in the final round of talks and the atmosphere is positive, favoring the prompt signing of an agreement, the details may still derail the process, especially since each issue involves a number of nuances, any one of which could send the negotiators back to the drawing board.

For example, Iran had abandoned its demand that the USA remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from its list of sanctioned organizations, but there still remained a dispute about the removal from the list of the Guard Corps’ various subsidiary companies and other organizations that play an important role in the Iranian economy. According to the Tehran Times, this economic dispute is preventing major international companies, especially those based in Europe, from entering into agreements or partnerships with Iranian organizations. And if they want to enter the Iranian market directly, they will fall foul of the sanctions imposed by the US Congress. And it appears that the Biden administration’s mandarins have no intention of departing in the slightest from their imperialistic ambitions to control the policies and economics of many other countries in various parts of the world.

The USA’s decision to continue imposing sanctions and keep up the pressure on the Revolutionary Guard Corps will make it very difficult for Iran to achieve its goal of extending its international influence, especially in the Middle East. It is no secret that the Revolutionary Guard is the main body responsible for promoting Iran’s policies in such conflict-ridden states as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Its actions frequently trigger conflicts in the region and inflame sectarian tensions, particularly between Iran, and the US, Israel and their satellites. As a result, Tehran, in a bid to recover its regional influence and provide more support to its allies, is requesting Washington to change its approach to the Revolutionary Guard, and to reflect this in the new version of the JCPOA. Unless this happens, Tehran will see its international influence declining – a serious problem for the country. According to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, “This may trigger an escalation of tensions in the Middle East, but if the Revolutionary Guard Corps continues to act without regard for US position, then Washington will be in the position of an ostrich – hiding its head in the sand, while indirectly financing the Iranian project.”

So far, the US administration is categorically opposed to linking the renewal of the nuclear deal with the discontinuation of inspections by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). As the White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a recent statement, “There should not be any conditionality between re-implementation of the JCPOA and investigations related to Iran’s legal obligations under the Non-proliferation Treaty.” She was referring to the investigation by the Vienna-based IAEA into traces of uranium found in three undeclared Iranian facilities.

On September 1 Iran sent its final answer to the text proposed by the European Union in order to revive the agreement. Under this document Iran would limit its nuclear program in return for a relaxing of the economic sanctions imposed by the USA, the European Union and the United Nations. The Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, demanded that the IAEA discontinue its inspections into Iran’s nuclear activities, describing them as “politically motivated” and conducted under pressure from Washington.  After the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal under former President Donald Trump in 2018, Washington reintroduced sanctions against Tehran, and in response Tehran stopped complying with the restrictions in the agreement. As a result, the USA, many Arab nations and especially Israel began to fear that Iran was fast-tracking a nuclear weapons program – something that the Iranian leadership has categorically denied.

The negotiating teams in Vienna have been unable to reach an agreement that can satisfy all parties including the IAEA, which is insisting that it be allowed to complete its investigation of all the three nuclear sites in Iran where high levels of enriched Uranium have been found. According to the US press, the latter fact proves what many have long believed: that Iran still has secret nuclear facilities. The IAEA sees this problem and its possible solutions as an element of USA’s national security policy, and this may result in inconsistencies between the decisions adopted in Washington and the decisions on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear weapons potential in the future. Moreover, as the various problems are being addressed, Tel Aviv is stepping up its pressure on Washington. The most dangerous development is the Israeli government’s declaration that it is not bound by the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries, which raises the specter of Israel taking unilateral action against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

It should be noted that the Israeli leadership has never, at any level, supported the JCPOA. Even more alarming, in recent months the Israeli armed forces have been increasingly active and have openly talked about the need to launch pre-emptive strikes on nuclear facilities in Iran. All the main Israel newspapers reporting the US decision to sell Israel four new Boeing refueling aircraft claimed that this deal would make it “easier to carry out strikes on Iran.” The Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz described the sale as an “important step” that would “enable the IDF to face security challenges near and far.”  The refueling aircraft, which can refuel fighter jets in flight, would demonstrate Israel’s readiness to launch strikes against Iran, which is currently outside the flying range of Israel’s stealth fighter jets.

The renewal of the Iran nuclear deal would probably limit the USA’s and Israel’s freedom of action in relation to Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, warns Brigadier-General Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of the IDF’s Military Intelligence research division. While he believes that both the discussed deal and a no-deal scenario have advantages and drawbacks, “it is clear to [him] that the current reality of a no-deal is better than a reality with a deal.” In his view, the US and Israel currently enjoy freedom of action, and could undermine the nuclear project and paralyze its infrastructure, but this freedom will disappear if the JCPOA is signed. He believes that as soon as the agreement is signed, “not even the US will be able to prevent Iran from having the capability to produce a big arsenal of nuclear weapons,” as by the time the agreement expires Tehran will have advanced too far in its nuclear program to be stopped by military means.

In a recent speech, Mohammad Eslami, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, claimed that the “enemies have decided to abandon their commitments,” a statement that serves as a clear signal to the Western powers that Iran will not accept the nuclear deal currently on offer. He emphasized that Iran is stepping up the expansion of its nuclear program, but that “the enemy has tried to prevent the Islamic Republic from obtaining advanced technology.” Speaking in Kashan at an event to honor Iranian nuclear scientists who have been assassinated, presumably by Israel, he called for an end to the IAEA’s investigations into three undeclared Iranian nuclear facilities in which traces of enriched uranium have been found.

According to the London-based website and television channel Iran International, Mr. Eslami made his recent comments at a time when the Iranian government is adopting an increasingly hard line approach to the ongoing talks on the renewal of the nuclear deal, although in the US and the European Union the public remains optimistic about Iran’s recent input on the current draft text.  Iran International cites an unnamed European civil servant involved in the negotiations, who assured the journalist Laura Rozen that Iran’s most recent declarations have “moved us very far back — at a time when, thanks to the EU coordinator’s perseverance, and everyone’s flexibility, we were almost there.”  He also said that the EU’s most recent draft was “at the outer limits of our flexibility already.”

Vendant Patel, a spokesman for the US Department of State, described Iran’s input as “not constructive,” although Adriene Watson, spokesperson for the National Security Council, later put the US position more diplomatically, describing the negotiations as a “regular back and forth,” in which “some gaps have closed in recent weeks but others remain.”  Nevertheless, according to Israel’s Channel 12 News, citing a source in the Foreign Ministry, Israel expects the deal to be signed within the next few weeks.