Analysis |

As Israel Wonders Where Iran Is Headed, Tehran's Steps Leave No Room for Doubt

Tehran raises oil production, anticipating the resumption of exports as part of a renewed nuclear deal. But Western representatives at the negotiating table say there’s still a long way to go

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Outgoing Iranian President Hassan Rohani and President-Elect Ebrahim Raisi, on Wednesday
Outgoing Iranian President Hassan Rohani and President-Elect Ebrahim Raisi, on WednesdayCredit: Iranian Presidency Office via AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Details of the negotiations between Iran and six world powers on a new nuclear agreement have not been leaked, but they have already spawned two assessments. According to one, that of outgoing President Hassan Rohani and his negotiating team, the “principal issues surrounding the renewal of the nuclear agreement have been settled and now the sanctions can be removed in their entirety,” as Rohani told a cabinet meeting Wednesday. His chief of staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, went one step further and said the United States is prepared to lift all sanctions on oil trade and 1,044 additional sanctions on Iran, including on maritime transport and insurance.

But Western representatives say that despite progress, there’s still a long way to go, as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week. “There are still some nuts to crack,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Wednesday. It isn’t clear which “nuts” he was referring to or how long the negotiations are expected to continue – whether it will be “weeks and not months,” as Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, or only a few days.

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What is clear is Iran’s desire to wrap up the negotiations as quickly as possible without yielding on its core demands. In Israel, as Jonathan Lis reported on Wednesday, officials aren’t certain what Iran’s intentions are; is it planning some kind of ruse, or is it really interested in coming to an agreement quickly? But a look at Iran’s preparations for the talks in recent weeks indicates there shouldn’t be any need for deliberation.

For months, Iran has been preparing an inventory of crude oil that it is storing in tanks on land and sea, as well as in storage reservoirs in China and India. Estimates are that it has between 70 million and 200 million barrels of oil available that it can get to its customers within 10 to 20 days.

Moreover, in recent weeks, it has significantly increased its oil production beyond the 2.4 million barrels it exports daily. These numbers make it clear that Iran is preparing for the lifting of sanctions on its oil sales and the signing of a new nuclear agreement. To this we can add the talks Iran has been holding with oil importers from India, South Korea and China in anticipation of signing new oil contracts, along with the discussions being held by the OPEC countries on organizing for Iran’s reentry into the market.

At the same time, it is worth noting Rohani’s comment, made in the same optimistic statement, that “[i]f there is the will, and the head of the Iranian negotiating team, Abbas Araqchi, gets the necessary authority, the U.S. administration would be able to lift the sanctions today.” On the issue of will, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei already responded when he allowed the negotiations, including indirectly with the United States.

The question of Araqchi’s authority presumably relates to when Khamenei wants to sign the agreement – whether during Rohani’s term, which ends on August 3, or after that, when the next president, Ebrahim Raisi, takes office. Meanwhile, Iran and the countries with which it is negotiating have reached a deadlock over nuclear facility oversight, as the oversight extension agreement, from which Iran withdrew in February as part of its planned breaches of the agreement, expires Thursday. The decision to renew it is in the hands of the National Security Council.

As part of the uncertainty surrounding the negotiations, the United States appears to have failed to persuade Iran to discuss its ballistic missile program, which President Joe Biden seeks to reduce and restrict. With the start of negotiations, Iran announced that it would not discuss issues beyond the nuclear agreement and that it would not hold direct talks with the United States. Incidentally, bills were submitted in the Iranian parliament this week banning all direct negotiations between Iran and U.S. representatives.

The West believes that Iran’s recent failed attempt to launch a satellite into space – the fourth failure in a row and the second this month – is one reason Iran is refusing to put the missile program on the negotiating table. The missiles on which Iran has attempted to launch the satellites are probably two-stage Simorgh missiles that can also be used for military purposes and as a base for intercontinental missiles.

According to Western reports, the country’s Khomeini launch site is already preparing for another attempt, which, if it succeeds, will not only be a scientific achievement for Iran, but will also testify to its advanced ballistic capabilities. But even if the launch is unsuccessful, it makes clear that Iran will continue to develop missiles, which it will justify by citing its quest to reach space.

The election of Ebrahim Raisi as president adds to the concerns regarding Tehran’s military plans in the ballistic field. Raisi, supported by the Revolutionary Guards, is a staunch opponent of any negotiations with the United States and even called for former President Donald Trump to be prosecuted for the assassination of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. He will probably have to swallow the nuclear deal, as it was Khamenei’s decision, and the supreme leader had banned criticism of the deal on the eve of its signing in 2015. Khamenei’s directive remains in force regarding the new deal as well, and Raisi said during his election campaign that he would support the deal “as long as it serves Iran’s interests,” even more so if it’s signed after he takes office, providing him with needed legitimacy.

But when it comes to the missile issue, and Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts such as Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, Raisi is expected to adopt the Revolutionary Guards’ approach and to increase Iran’s presence in those areas.

If the sanctions are indeed lifted soon, Raisi and the entire regime will enjoy a huge injection of cash that will launch an economic recovery and bring in foreign investors, as was seen after the signing of the original agreement. Iran will then be able to compete with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states for the large oil customers it lost under the sanctions regime and allocate more resources to strengthening its position in the Middle East and beyond. That will be a new campaign that will force world powers to adjust their Middle East to policies to Iran’s new performance.

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