The deal to curb and curb Iran’s nuclear program risks collapsing in the face of US intransigence over sanctions relief and the ambivalence of an intransigent administration in Tehran over the benefits of an agreement she might see as more problematic than it is worth.
For now, diplomatic envoys from the countries party to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are working to find a formula to resume talks that broke off earlier this year. Officials tasked with reviving the deal are awaiting any positive signal or movement from Iran, which has gradually stepped up its program well beyond the confines of the nuclear deal and complicates access for inspectors seeking to clarify its program.
“The deal is not completely dead, but he is on life support,” said a government official involved in the talks. They spoke on condition of anonymity.
Experts warn that the status quo is not sustainable and that a collapse of the deal could lead to an armed escalation. The United States has accused Iran of dragging its feet, and State Department spokesman Ned Price on Tuesday told reporters “this is not an exercise that can go on indefinitely.” Israeli Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman warned this week that “a confrontation with Iran is only a matter of time, and not much time.”
The JCPOA, the result of more than a dozen years of diplomacy, was functioning largely as intended until former US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018, launching a campaign of draconian sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to return to the negotiating table to strike a deal more favorable to Washington and its regional partners.
The plan, hatched by a narrow clique of political agents in Washington, failed. Iran increased its nuclear program, refused to engage with Washington, and began to stabilize its economy. President Joe Biden vowed to reverse the deal when he took office in January, but waited months before addressing Iran. Talks resumed in Vienna, but were stalled by an Iranian election that brought the hardline administration of President Ebrahim Raisi to power.
Mr Raisi’s team, now in office since early August, say they need time to settle in, echoing talking points the Biden administration used to apologize for its three-month delay in the talks started earlier this year. But Western officials suspect Iran of dragging its feet to strengthen its influence by increasing the purity and quantity of its nuclear fuel stockpile.
“If they are just buying time while broadening their agenda, we will have to recalibrate our approach,” said the official involved in the Iranian talks.
But for the most part, Iran’s calculations remain a mystery. Unlike the hard-line administration of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who ruled from 2005 to 2013, Mr. Raisi is relatively calm, making few waves internationally and offering few signals of his intentions.
“They are struggling to strategize and build consensus,” said Sanam Vakil, an Iranian expert at Chatham House. “Dragging their feet can be seen as influence building exercise, but it is also a reflection of internal paralysis. “
Indeed, just as Trump abandoned the JCPOA in part to distinguish himself from his predecessor, Barack Obama, who forged it, the Raisi team must find a formula to make the nuclear deal their own, and avoid anything that could. save the legacy of his predecessor, the moderate administration of Hassan Rouhani. The results of a telephone survey conducted by Gallup this week suggests that Raisi has broad support for his policies so far, with over 70% rating him positively.
Experts say Iran may be nervous about Washington’s talks on following up a return to the JCPOA with negotiations over the Iranian missile program and support for armed groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the United States. Yemen. The JCPOA, which has imposed limits on Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief, has been criticized by hawks in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Washington for failing to take into account other actions by Iran. If the United States chooses to use nuclear talks to push for follow-up talks, Iran can calculate that its nuclear advances will give it leverage.
“The feeling in Tehran is that they will resume talks but lead a tougher market,” said Ali Ahmadi, a political scientist at the University of Tehran.
“Iran’s advances in nuclear technology put the United States, at least to a small extent, on par with Iran in terms of not getting what they negotiated in 2015,” he said. declared. “This could create the possibility of a more deal for later, or at least level the playing field to some extent when the reinstatement agreement is reached.”
Iran has increased its inventories of enriched uranium to more than 10 times the limit imposed by the JCPOA and has started to enrich uranium at 60% purity, well above the reactor grade of 5% or less allowed by agreement. It has also started to operate advanced centrifuges that produce more nuclear material at a faster rate, while complicating the efforts of inspectors seeking to keep tabs on the program under Tehran’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s sanctions largely remain in place. Talks in Vienna earlier this year were stalled by Iranian demands that once sanctions are lifted they will not be resumed, and demands that the White House repeal certain sanctions only for Congress to reimpose.
“What the Iranians want is a written guarantee,” said the official close to the talks. “They want guarantees that changes in the administration will not reduce the sanctions. But this is not possible in any democratic system.
Iran says it is ready to resume talks. But in a TV interview this week, Mr Raisi said he wondered if the United States was serious about relaunching the JCPOA. “The willingness to lift the sanctions can be a sign of their gravity,” he said.
But in recent months, international officials have started to think about what it would mean for the JCPOA to completely collapse. Many wonder if the United States has ever sanctioned Iran so much that it lacks non-military tools. International companies already remain largely removed from Iran.
However, the Iranian currency has stabilized and China is said to support its economy through purchases of oil. Iranian security forces quelled several waves of protests against the economic turmoil.
“It is difficult to imagine Europe [sanctions] or even a resumption of UN sanctions having a lot of effect, ”said Mr. Ahmadi. “The United States is trying to get China to stop doing business with Iran, but that’s unlikely given the escalating tensions in Sino-US relations. The military threats are there, but they have been around for 20 years.
As for the threat of an Israeli military attack, it could happen whether the JCPOA is resurrected or not. “Closing a deal would probably not make such an episode significantly less likely,” Ahmadi said.
Still, Mr Raisi has vowed to cut inflation and turn the economy around, and there could be problems on the horizon if he fails. A report leaked in August 2021 by the Planning and Budget Organization of Iran warned that the country’s economy could collapse by 2027 if the country does not reduce its debt.
“Their thought is that they can survive whatever is to come because they have survived everything so far,” Ms. Vakil said. “But that’s a dangerous calculation. They are always strategically on a razor’s edge. The result at the national level could be dangerous in the long run. Yes, they have a monopoly on violence. Yes, the economy is tight, but the level of poverty is increasing. Debt is increasing.
European Union officials, including foreign policy chief Josep Borell and his deputy Enrique Mora, have actively engaged with Iran in part to ensure that the diplomatic atmosphere does not become so toxic as it is. would prevent a resumption of talks. The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, is planning a trip to Tehran in the coming days to convince Iran to give back access to the inspectors.
But mistrust on both sides is growing. The Iranians are beginning to doubt that the Biden administration, beset by multiple challenges in Washington and the scars of the traumatic withdrawal from Afghanistan, will be able to strike a deal with Iran that would have questionable political benefits. Western countries are increasingly suspicious and frustrated by Tehran’s actions.
“If the Iranians really wanted to take their time, why continue to escalate their disrespect? said the official involved in the talks. “Why not freeze their non-compliance? If they go, the options are not good. It would be a miscalculation to think that everyone would shrug their shoulders. “