Patience may be running thin, the talks stalled and the outlook pessimistic, but officially the negotiations on returning to the international nuclear agreement with Iran may resume as early as this week, and they continue to be a main avenue for the United States and the world powers.
The seventh round of discussions with Iran ended last week in Vienna with no results, and the head of the Iranian delegation Ali Bagheri Kani was called home for consultations. Participants in the talks say the sides might meet on Friday in Austria, or January 3 at the latest.
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Sources in Israel now believe that the parties will not return to the original agreement signed in 2015 known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, because, among other reasons, it is about to expire.
Iran is expected to cross the technological threshold, which the 2015 agreement was meant to avert, at the end of January or in early February, and the list of Iran’s demands will require more extensive discussions. A U.S. government official also marked the end of the first quarter of 2022 as the date when decisions will be made.
Israeli sources believe the international community will now face two possible paths: The first being a blowup of the talks that would lead to a controlled crisis with Iran that would persist for a long period. Such a situation might eventually bring a more flexible Iran back to the negotiating table. The second path would be an interim agreement in the coming weeks between Iran and world powers that includes partial understandings about Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran has made clear that it opposes such an agreement at this point however, and it is unclear what it might include.
Reports in the Iranian media regarding the end of the round of talks noted that they had made technical headway. The Russian delegation also broadcast optimistic messages about progress in the coming weeks. But various officials said that these messages do not reflect the failure of the talks so far.
Accordingly, in the negotiating chambers all participants in the talks with Iran presented a harsh line against it and anger at the demands Tehran presented. “I think the Iranians were surprised, two weeks ago, when they met what was truly a united diplomatic front, not only the E3 [Britain, France and Germany] but Russia and China,” a U.S. official told a news conference at the end of the week.
“The Iranians, so far, have not agreed to take the steps they will have to take on the nuclear side and that is the reason we’re stuck,” he said.
The official blamed Iran’s progress in its nuclear program in recent years on the Trump administration, which withdrew “unilaterally, with no plan or concept of what would come after,” but added that the talks might still bear fruit.
After weeks of public maneuvers, which included meetings between Israel’s foreign and defense ministers and their counterparts in the United States and Europe, Israeli efforts in the coming days will be mainly behind the scenes. Last week Defense Minister Benny Gantz briefed senior researchers and the heads of think tanks on Israel’s position on the nuclear issue.
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A number of participants in the meetings, including former CIA chief David Petraeus, Dennis Ross and the journalist and historian Robert Satloff, as well as former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, issued a joint statement expressing support for the diplomatic avenue and calling on President Joe Biden to take steps against Iran. Among their suggestions was joint high-profile military exercises that would threaten Iran's nuclear infrastructure and force it to meet the demands of the international community.
The statement noted the importance of providing allies and partners "as well as U.S. installations and assets in the region with enhanced defensive capabilities to counter whatever retaliatory actions Iran might choose to make, thereby signaling our readiness to act, if necessary."
The authors also called on the U.S. to act forcefully in response to the Iranian attack on the American base in Syria and attacks on commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf.