Iran Nuke Talks Resume: Is the West Willing to Accept That Tehran Also Seeks a Better Deal?

Tehran has clearly become highly skilled at the tactic of going to the brink – but not beyond it

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Protestors burning a picture of Donald Trump and Joe Biden in Tehran, last year.
Protestors burning a picture of Donald Trump and Joe Biden in Tehran, last year.Credit: WANA/ REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Iran is prepared to reach a “good agreement” quickly, with the goal of protecting the Iranian people’s rights and interests, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian announced on Saturday, prior to the arrival in Vienna of his deputy, Ali Bagheri Kani, the country’s chief nuclear negotiator.

A long analysis published in Farsi on the Fars internet news site on Sunday sought to explain what Iran considers a good agreement. The author said unequivocally that a temporary or partial agreement, which has been dubbed “less for less,” isn’t good for Iran. It would be useful only if America allowed Iran to fully reenter the oil market, he wrote, and since Washington apparently doesn’t intend to grant this concession, there’s no point in talking about this option.

More than explaining why Iran should reject a partial agreement, the article explained what Iran is seeking.

The assumption taking root in the West is that Iran isn’t interested in negotiating over a new nuclear agreement; it wants to continue enriching uranium, build a nuclear weapon and thereby bolster its regional and international position. This assumption rests in part on the fact that Iran has so far managed to survive all the sanctions imposed on it for the last 40 years, including former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy.

Moreover, this argument goes, Iran is convinced that China will continue buying oil from it despite the sanctions, that Russia will give it diplomatic backing and that it can protect its regional position through dialogue and agreements with Gulf States like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, with which it is already in advanced diplomatic talks.

It has also so far withstood the pressure to allow UN inspectors to inspect its nuclear facilities. And according to the Fars article, the military option is a bluff; even Trump never intended to use it, and current U.S. President Joe Biden certainly won’t, since he doesn’t want to embark on a new Middle Eastern war.

Consequently, this argument goes, Iran has no need of an agreement.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi and Head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Mohammad Eslami shake hands as they meet in Tehran, Iran, last week.Credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/ REUTERS

But all these arguments for why there’s no point to the talks that open in Vienna on Monday fail to answer one question – why is Iran nevertheless attending them? Is it doing so only to escape blame for the agreement’s violation, which has until now been blamed solely on Trump?

Or does it plan to make a show of participating but actually drag out the talks while continuing to enrich uranium, on the assumption that as long as the talks continue, it is safe from attack? But if Iran isn’t afraid of a military attack, showing up in Vienna is unnecessary.

The West’s assumption also raises other questions. For instance, why did Iran decide to enter nuclear negotiations back in 2013, when the sanctions were less onerous than those imposed by Trump?

Moreover, after Trump withdrew from the agreement, why did Iran wait a full year before it started publicly violating it? At the time, Western pundits speculated that Iran sought to pressure Washington and its European partners in the deal to quickly return to it.

One could also ask why Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, approved six rounds of talks after Biden took office. According to former Iranian President Hassan Rohani, the sides had managed to overcome most of the hurdles, and a new agreement depended solely on a political decision by the relevant governments. In other words, the technical problems – how much uranium Iran can enrich, timetables and inspection mechanisms – had been solved.

Five months have passed since the talks ended in June. Since then, Iran has taken steps that may well indicate an intent to return to the agreement. It stockpiled oil so it could enter the oil market in a big way once sanctions were lifted. It sought to woo back former customers like India, South Korea and Japan.

Iran also agreed to negotiate with senior Saudi officials as part of a new agenda, set by new President Ebrahim Raisi together with Khamenei, under which reconciling with neighbors, especially the Gulf States, has become a top priority. It is conducting intensive talks with the UAE, and following the upcoming visit to Tehran by Emirati National Security Adviser Tahnoun bin Zayed, there is talk of a first visit by the UAE’s ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addresses the parliament during a vote of confidence session for the education minister, in Tehran, Iran, this month.Credit: Vahid Salemi,AP

Iran knows quite well that without a new agreement that lifts the sanctions, all these diplomatic steps are meaningless. Neither Biden’s chilly relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman nor Riyadh’s rapprochement with Russia and China lessens Saudi Arabia’s security dependence on America. The same goes for the UAE, which is closely bound to America both economically and militarily.

Consequently, it seems the Gulf States’ realization that Washington will reach an agreement with Tehran is what spurred them to lay the groundwork for normalization with their neighbor.

To all this must be added the well-known fact that Iran is in a deep economic crisis that has spurred protests against water shortages, the cost of living, the plummeting rial and consequent decline in purchasing power, the housing crisis and widespread unemployment. These are all the reasons that forced Iran to sign the original nuclear deal in 2015.

It’s hard to assess the impact of domestic pressure. Not every protest, however large, is an immediate threat to the regime. Much larger and more threatening protests took place in 2009 and again in 2012. And over the last two years, not a week has passed without protests of varying sizes.

The regime’s challenge isn’t survival, but upholding the promise of the Islamic Revolution, which has become the ideological basis of its contract with the public. This contract requires the regime to provide a good life, a healthy economy and opportunities to work and study and thereby turn the world’s only Shi’ite state into a global Islamic role model.

One might sneer at these lofty ambitions. But when you listen to Iranians’ criticism of their own government, the phrase “the values of the revolution” – or more accurately, “betraying the values of the revolution” – is an inseparable part of it.

Given all this, the working assumption ought to be that Iran wants an agreement and even wants it quickly. The practical question is whether the Western powers are willing to accept that they aren’t the only ones seeking an agreement they view as better; so is Iran.

Iran’s stated conditions are no secret. First, it wants firm guarantees that America won’t withdraw from the agreement again, even under a future president. It also demands the removal of all the sanctions imposed on it both before and after America withdrew from the agreement in 2018, as well as a supervisory mechanism that will ensure their removal.

Iran has said it doesn’t intend to negotiate over its nuclear program, only over the sanctions. From this, one can conclude that all the issues relating to the nuclear program were already settled during the previous rounds of talks.

Tehran’s conditions are obviously hard to swallow. Biden can’t make promises that will bind future presidents, nor can he promise the removal of sanctions imposed on Iran over issues other than the nuclear program, like its human rights violations and its funding of terrorist organizations. Even if he wanted to, removing such sanctions would require special legislation.

As for the supervisory mechanism, Iran’s interpretation is that sanctions will be removed first and only then will it resume abiding by the terms of the original nuclear deal.

But these conditions currently seem like a rigid opening position. As is usual in such complex negotiations, there are likely to be explosions, breakdowns, threats and mutual recriminations as well as breakthroughs.

On the positive side, Iran has clearly become highly skilled at the tactic of going to the brink but not beyond it. When it thought Washington and its partners were ready to walk away from the talks, it set a date for resuming them.

Tehran will continue to test its partners’ flexibility and patience. But that is a far cry from being willing to give up on an agreement entirely.

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