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Israel Watches on as U.S. and Iran Look to Revive Nuclear Deal in Vienna

As the corruption trial of Benjamin Netanyahu begins in earnest and as efforts to form a new government continue, talks between Washington and Tehran are actually the biggest show in town

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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Iranian President Hassan Rohani delivers a speech in Tehran, last month.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani delivers a speech in Tehran, last month.Credit: Iranian Presidency Office via AP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

Israelis would be well-advised to split their TV screens into three sections this week.

At first, it seemed a simple split-screen would suffice: One side would show President Reuven Rivlin consulting with politicians of all parties ahead of announcing who he will ask to form a government. The other half would be from Jerusalem District Court, showing live pictures of a visibly uncomfortable Benjamin Netanyahu reporting for the start of his corruption trial hearing, sternly and impatiently listening as Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman reads out the severe charges against him.

But maybe another third of the screen now needs to be allocated to pictures from Vienna, where U.S. and Iranian delegations will meet to discuss a resumption of the Iran nuclear deal (aka the JCPOA).

Granted, the Vienna talks will not produce drama – certainly not in the first few days – but the repercussions are potentially just as dramatic as those original split-screen images.

As both a presidential candidate and as president, Joe Biden identified the JCPOA as a foreign policy issue of some urgency. Iran was enriching uranium, stockpiling 12 times the amount it had after the agreement was originally signed in 2015, and anxious Middle Eastern allies – notably Israel and Saudi Arabia – were getting jittery. A worst-case scenario could see the United States being involuntarily dragged into another broad conflict.

The urgency represented three interlocking dimensions of Biden’s foreign policy. First, the United States will reengage with the world and reassert alliances, exercise multilateralism and honor treaties. Second, the Trump policy of withdrawing from the agreement and applying “maximum pressure” on Iran was a dismal failure, which resulted in Iranian intransigence and defiance, a de facto breaching of the agreement and the signing of a multiyear, $400-billion strategic partnership agreement with China. Third, the JCPOA will collapse altogether unless both the United States and Iran reenter it with some degree of good faith.

Furthermore, there is no status quo ante, and it needs to be modified and the flaws in the original 2015 agreement must be adequately addressed.

The policy principles crafted in the United States generally envisage a two-phase process: Once the agreement goes back into force and Iran reaffirms verifiable compliance (conducted by the U.S. and the International Atomic Energy Agency), American sanctions will be lifted and phase two can commence: embellishing the agreement.

This includes extending timetables on Iran’s nuclear development, i.e improving the “sunset clauses” governing the allowed development after the expiration of each period; constructing an arms control regime on Iran’s ballistic missile development; curtailing Iran’s regional policies of sponsoring terrorism and the use of proxies such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and a host of militias in both Iraq and Syria.

U.S. President Joe Biden. Credit: Andrew Harnik,AP

How much of that is deliverable via an agreement remains to be seen.

Last Friday, the European Union issued an official statement announcing the Vienna event and describing it as talks designed “to clearly identify sanctions lifting and nuclear implementation measures.” The statement also made a point of stressing that all parties, including Russia and China, “emphasized their commitment to preserve the JCPOA.”

The EU is acting as a mediator. France, Great Britain and Germany (the E3) are co-signatories to the original JCPOA from 2015 and have a vested interest in intermediating the talks. Neither the United States nor Iran want direct dialogue at the outset, unless success is assured beforehand.

The objective is clear: To put the nuclear deal back into effect, after the United States, under then-President Donald Trump, withdrew unilaterally in May 2018 and after Iran began enriching uranium a year ago in response, in clear violation of the agreement.

The theoretical equation seems clear-cut: The United States and Iran will perform major reciprocal steps – Iran will return unconditionally to full compliance and subject itself to IAEA inspections, while the Americans will lift the harsh sanctions reimposed on Iran after the U.S. withdrawal.

But the main obstacle is the sequencing: What comes first, Iran returning to compliance or the U.S. lifting sanctions? The obstacle seems a negotiating football, which until now was intractable.

A part of the Arak heavy water nuclear facilities is seen, 150 miles (250 kilometers) southwest of the Iranian capital of Tehran.Credit: Mehdi Marizad/AP

The Iranian position from the outset was unwavering. According to Iran, the United States violated the JCPOA by virtue of unilaterally withdrawing, despite Iran’s full and satisfactory compliance, as documented in numerous IAEA periodic reports. The United States reneged on its commitments, reimposed harsh sanctions for no reason and inflicted uncalled-for hardship and misery on Iranians. Therefore, as a precondition to any negotiations on reinstating the agreement, the United States needs to lift all those sanctions that have hurt Iran’s economy significantly. The Americans, the Iranian argument goes, never denied all this.

This position has been stated on several occasions by Supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and with Iranian elections looming on June 18, other Iranian officials and politicians are endeavoring to sound even tougher.

Naturally, this was just an opening position. The Vienna talks, and the preparatory discussions leading to them, provide Iran with an opportunity to scale down the rhetoric and entertain possible bridging formulas.

A more relaxed and malleable approach was evident on Friday when Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, spoke on social media app Clubhouse, sounding somewhat exuberant.

“Thankfully we are moving past the childish debate of who goes first. ... The deadlock is being broken,” he said, adding that the path forward is “smoother.” Offering his own geopolitical input, he also remarked that “if the US wants to unlock the lock it is facing in the region, Iran is the ‘golden key.’”

Unsurprisingly, he defended Iran’s right to develop nuclear power for civilian purposes, so as to create greater energy diversity and free oil revenues for investing in the economy. But before any engagement with the United States, he noted that “America must first recognize Iran’s national interests.”

Assuming Iran will resist an immediate declaration of full compliance, one possible formula for untangling the knot would be to mutually synchronize the sequence. If full compliance-full sanctions lifting is untenable, then the acts will be broken into smaller phases and conducted simultaneously. This idea will surely be explored in Vienna through the European intermediaries.

To make the atmosphere more conducive, the United States may offer a confidence-building measure in the form of a symbolic partial lifting of specific sanctions. Yet it is inconceivable that in Vienna, or in subsequent talks preceding any agreement, the Americans will announce a comprehensive lifting of sanctions.

While the Netanyahu-Mansour Abbas negotiations about the United Arab List potentially joining a right-wing government are attractive to look at, Israel would be wiser to tune into events in Vienna and also two smaller developments: The Biden administration’s decision to lift the sanctions levied by Trump on International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who will this week launch an investigation into alleged Israeli “war crimes” in Gaza; and the U.S. State Department reverting to using “occupied” when describing the status of the West Bank.

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