Israel is having trouble figuring out whether Iran is close to signing a new nuclear deal, or whether Ebrahim Raisi’s election as president reflects a radicalization that will lead to the talks collapsing and Tehran proceeding rapidly toward building nuclear weapons.
The first indication should come on Thursday, when the understandings that enable the International Atomic Energy Agency to continue monitoring Iran’s nuclear facilities expire. If Iran agrees to extend those understandings – which it doesn’t currently seem willing to do – that will indicate a desire to reach a new nuclear deal, Israeli officials said.
On Sunday, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, announced a time-out in the nuclear talks to enable consultations with the Iranian leadership. “We are now closer to an agreement than ever,” he said. “But it is not an easy task to close the distance currently between us and an agreement.”
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Israeli intelligence agencies have proposed three possible scenarios for what comes next. One is that Iran genuinely wants to sign the deal, but is waiting for Raisi to take office in August, so he can get credit for the move and obtain international legitimacy.
The second is that the talks are about to collapse, because the election of Raisi, a hardliner who was the preferred candidate of Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei, indicates Tehran’s intent to make radical new negotiating demands that the international community would have trouble accepting.
The third, which some international sources favor, is that the Iranians are currently engaged in a deception. Under this scenario, Iran will deliberately slow the talks, causing them to drag out for another several months, while accelerating its efforts to make significant nuclear achievements that can later be used as leverage in the negotiations.
This accords with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s warning two weeks ago that if agreements to rein in Iran’s nuclear program aren’t reached soon, Iran’s “breakout time” could shrink to just a few weeks. This term refers to the time Tehran would need to enrich enough uranium to a high enough level to make one nuclear bomb; it doesn’t cover other necessary components, like a detonator.
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Speaking at a congressional hearing on June 7, Blinken said, “It remains unclear whether Iran is willing and prepared to do what it needs to do to come back into compliance.”
Meanwhile, he continued, “Its program is galloping forward. ... The longer this goes on, the more the breakout time gets down ... it’s now down, by public reports, to a few months at best. And if this continues, it will get down to a matter of weeks.”
Israel is now waiting to see what happens with regard to IAEA inspections. These inspections are currently allowed under a short-term agreement that the agency signed with Iran in February. It was extended for another month in May, but it expires on Thursday.
IAEA director general Rafael Grossi said recently that the agency is having trouble negotiating another month’s extension with Iran. “I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult,” he said when asked about the chances of this happening.
The temporary agreement gives the IAEA access to the cameras installed in Iran’s nuclear facilities, but greatly restricts its access to the facilities themselves. The cameras are still working, but Iran has insisted on keeping all the footage until a new nuclear deal is signed.
Iran’s state-run media reported last month that Tehran will allow the IAEA to view the footage and will refrain from erasing it only if America lifts the sanctions imposed by former U.S. President Donald Trump. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has urged Blinken to remove these sanctions, which include some imposed personally on the heads of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
“Lifting Trump’s sanctions, Secretary Blinken, is a legal and moral obligation,” Zarif tweeted last month. “NOT negotiating leverage. Didn’t work for Trump — won’t work for you.”