After five weeks of diplomatic shadow boxing, it is clear that the old agreement no longer works for Tehran or Washington, except as a steppingstone.
In recent weeks, Malley has traveled to Vienna to renew nuclear talks. His position has shifted quickly from tying the lifting of sanctions to Iran returning to JCPOA compliance to simply demanding a commitment to return to the status quo ante. The real talks, however, may not be in Vienna and may not involve Malley directly. In recent days, Bill Burns, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has quietly traveled to Baghdad, according to multiple Iraqi sources on the ground I have spoken to on background. Rather than hold talks in the U.S. embassy or in any Iraqi government building, he has instead quietly met with Iranian officials in the private home of the Iraqi foreign minister.
Nuclear talks in Vienna aimed at bringing the United States and Iran back into compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, are said to be making progress, which is good news. But there have been predictable roadblocks. Israel, which is not a party to the talks, appeared to sabotage Iran’s centrifuges just as talks were gaining steam. Republicans in Congress are pushing a bill called the Maximum Pressure Act that would strip President Biden’s ability to lift sanctions on Iran without a vote from Congress, making it impossible for the United States to live up to its end of any bargain.
iran has started enriching its uranium supply to 60 percent purity — the closest the country has ever come to the level needed for a weapon — in response to the sabotage of an Iranian nuclear site last weekend linked to Israel. The move by Iran, reported Friday on state media, made good on threats Iranian officials had announced after the sabotage, which have cast a new cloud over talks to save the 2015 deal limiting Iran’s nuclear abilities in exchange for sanctions relief. President Hassan Rouhani of Iran has gone further, boasting as those talks resumed in Vienna that his scientists could easily enrich uranium to 90 percent purity — weapons-grade fuel — although he insisted, as Iranian leaders have repeatedly, that Iran “is never seeking to make an atomic bomb.”
2021-04-12Full Text of FM Zarif's Letter to UN Secretary-General, His Excellency Mr. Antonio Guterres, on the Sabotage at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant
I am writing to inform you that in the early morning hours of 11 April 2021, a dangerous, reckless sabotage at the electricity distribution network of the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant caused a blackout and the disruption of the operations of this sensitive nuclear facility which has been under IAEA safeguards and extensive monitoring. The timely and professional containment measures adopted by the highly dedicated management and staff of the NFEP and Iranian Atomic Energy Organization averted what could have become a human and environmental catastrophe. The deliberate targeting of a highly sensitive safeguarded nuclear facility—with the high risk of potential release of radioactive material—constitutes reckless criminal nuclear terrorism. Considering the possible indiscriminate human and environmental consequences of this international crime, those who planned, ordered, participated and carried out this cowardly act committed a grave war crime; one that must not go unpunished. Any power with knowledge of, or acquiescence in, this act must also be held accountable as an accomplice to this war crime.
In effect, if Israel was behind the attack it has assumed for itself a unique kind of leverage. Although officially, Israel is not a member of the P5+1 negotiating group, it has shown that it is, for all practical purposes, able to veto or at least complicate the decisions of the other members. And this, perhaps, is the most powerful impact of its actions. By taking aggressive steps against Iran that Washington is unable or unwilling to prevent, Israel effectively buys itself a seat at the table at the P5+1 it would otherwise be denied. All of this would be a brilliant move, if there was anything new about it. But it has been the Israeli playbook since at least the turn of the century.
First, the administration is divided. According to Foreign Policy magazine, the Biden administration’s negotiator with Iran, Robert Malley, and Deputy National Security Advisor Jonathan Finer are in favor of rejoining, but Secretary of State Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan favor a harder line. Second, the powerful pro-Israel lobby has joined in pressing the Biden administration not to rejoin the JCPOA. Third, congressional Democrats are divided. In two separate letters to Blinken, bipartisan groups of about 160 members of the House have called for continued pressure on Iran. The chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, opposes revival of the JCPOA in its current form. In a statement, Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma warned, “As a reminder: Members of Congress rejected the JCPOA on a bipartisan basis in 2015. If you (Biden) repeat history next week by restoring that failed agreement, we will work to reject it once again.”
The Russian position on the JCPOA suggests the following. First, Moscow welcomes the very fact of a return to negotiations. Second, Russia insists on the need to separate nuclear issues from other topics. Otherwise, the possibility of reaching any compromises becomes extremely doubtful. Third, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs offers a “synchronised approach”. That is, Washington and Tehran must synchronise their concessions: the former unfreezes Iranian assets and lifts sanctions, the latter is gradually returning to the terms of the deal. At the same time, much will depend on what exactly the “synchronised approach” will consist of. For example, the United States could reverse Trump’s 2019 and 2020 executive orders, but keep in effect all sanctions renewed in 2018. Under these conditions, Iran is also unlikely to return to full compliance with its obligations. Timing is also important. The process of returning to the JCPOA could be almost endless. External factors must also be taken into account. Even if it is possible to separate the JCPOA from other issues, they will still have a background influence on the negotiations. The situation in Syria, Yemen and other points of contention that underscore the US-Iranian conflict remain unstable.
In Tehran, the initial hopes for what the Biden administration could offer Iran – particularly in terms of a revived economy – are fading. Iranian leaders recognise that, although the new president in the White House says he wants to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal, there has been little tangible shift away from the Trump-era maximum pressure campaign against Iran. While there is still a possibility that the agreement will be revived, it increasingly appears to Tehran that the process will be a marathon and not a sprint.
The new U.S. administration of Joe Biden pursues the same policy that the Trump administration pursued against Iran, Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday. Speaking at a weekly press conference, Khatibzadeh said, “For several years, the United States has been driving in the wrong direction on the highway, thinking that others who are on the right path are going wrong. The sooner the United States realizes the right direction of the highway, the better for the international community and multilateralism.” The spokesman said the U.S. should change its path, fully implement its commitments, and lift sanctions, which he described as “crime.”