The good news of a new nuclear deal almost within reach – a 20-page draft and a raft of understandings – should be read with one eye on the statements by the partners in the Vienna talks.
In a tweet this week, the head of the Iranian delegation to the negotiations, Ali Bagheri Kani, said one thing and the opposite: “After weeks of intensive talks, we are closer than ever to an agreement; nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, though.”
So it’s hard to say whether an agreement is close, or maybe just “closer than ever” – that is, closest since negotiations began in August last year. Theoretically, any understanding brings an agreement nearer, but as Kani says, it’s all or nothing.
Quoting diplomats involved in the talks, Reuters has described a gradual process where Iran returns to enriching uranium only up to 5 percent, while the United States releases $7 billion in Iranian funds held by banks in South Korea, which owes Iran for oil bought before the Trump administration’s strict sanctions.
It’s not clear whether Iran has agreed that only $7 billion of the $100 billion or so frozen in banks around the world will be released in the first stage, or how long this stage will last before the sanctions are lifted completely. It’s also not clear whether there will be more interim stages, and whether the United States will guarantee that it won’t withdraw from the new agreement in the future.
This latter plank is a key demand by Iran; in a letter this week, around 170 members of Congress asked President Joe Biden to spurn Iran’s demands. Biden has promised that his administration won’t withdraw from a new agreement, but for constitutional reasons, he can’t make such a commitment for future presidents.
Another possibility is to provide Iran with a long-term guarantee from the United Nations and the European countries that signed the original nuclear deal. There would also be alternative trade and funding mechanisms in case Washington leaves the agreement once again.
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Another question concerns the pace of lifting the sanctions and the oversight of the lifting. Iran demands a mechanism to ensure that the United States isn’t only removing the sanctions but also isn’t imposing them indirectly, such as by warning companies not to do business with Iran even if the sanctions are lifted.
The fear of an “American swindle” was seen in Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s attack this week on the Iranian negotiating team that produced the 2015 nuclear agreement. He was criticizing that team and previous President Hassan Rohani for not preparing for the fallout should the United States leave the deal.
These two issues, the guarantee and the oversight on the lifting of sanctions, are the final obstacles the Iranians are presenting before a deal can be signed. They’re saying the technical questions on the enriching of uranium, the development of the nuclear program and the supervision of enrichment facilities are no longer controversial because they’ve already been agreed on.
Given all this, it seems issues that weren’t in the original deal, such as the Iranians’ ballistic missile program, support for terrorist organizations and involvement in regional conflicts, aren’t on the table at all.
In this sense, we can rely on Iranian leaders’ statements in recent weeks that the United States realizes it must adopt a realistic approach. The Americans’ silence strengthens the view that Biden recognizes his limitations in the current talks.
It seems that despite the issues still not agreed on, the question isn’t if but when. Remember that just a few months ago the perception in Israel and around the world was that the Iranians weren’t interested in a new nuclear deal. They wanted their own nuclear program and weapons, and if they came to the negotiating table, they would drag out the talks for years.
So far, Iran has disproved this theory; all that’s left is the timing. State Department spokesman Ned Price answered this question Wednesday: “Our assessment is that we are in the midst of the very final stages of, as I said before, a complex negotiation with the key stakeholders here.” Well, that vague wording doesn’t exactly make you hear the clock ticking.