Analysis |

Iran and West Haven't Thrown in the Towel on Nuclear Talks

For Western powers, abandoning talks with Tehran means losing any chance of the big diplomatic achievement despite the UN nuclear watchdog's rebuke. Meanwhile, Iran said it has submitted to Washington a new proposal for renewing the talks

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei greeting the crowd during a ceremony marking the death anniversary of his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, on Saturday.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei greeting the crowd during a ceremony marking the death anniversary of his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, on Saturday.Credit: - - AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The demonstrations that erupted in Iran in early June have not stopped. Thousands of men and women – clerks, teachers, retirees and people in service jobs – are joining the protests every day in cities across the country, chanting slogans against the government and especially against President Ebrahim Raisi.

Last week, clerics in the holy city of Qom published an open letter directly accusing the political leadership of “failing to fulfill the revolution’s promises for a better life.” The government countered by accusing “foreign parties” and “enemies of the country” of “orchestrating” the demonstrations with the goal of toppling the regime.

The media, including outlets close to the regime or the Revolutionary Guards, have criticized the government’s economic policy. Members of parliament have submitted several parliamentary questions and demanded the ouster of the economy minister and even the president.

Nevertheless, the protests haven’t yet become a large-scale national movement like the demonstrations that erupted in 2009 after the fraudulent election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; they aren’t even on the scale of the ones that broke out in Khuzestan province in July and again in May over water shortages. Consequently, any expectation that the latest protests will push the government to accelerate negotiations over a new nuclear deal will likely prove false.

Iranian protesters chant slogans at a rally in Tehran, Iran, December 30, 2017.Credit: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Between Iran’s internal pressures and Western countries’ fear that time is running out, the negotiations are in a phase of going to the brink. On Wednesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors passed a resolution criticizing Iran for failing to explain uranium traces found at three undeclared sites. The resolution may be submitted to the UN Security Council and serve as a basis for demanding the resumption of the international sanctions imposed on Iran before the 2015 deal was signed. Russia and China have made it clear that they would oppose the threatening version of the resolution that the United States submitted this week to the board of the UN nuclear watchdog agency. But even if Wednesday’s resolution is passed, the road to the Security Council remains long, since even the Western countries don’t want to take a step that could destroy the negotiations option.

Moreover, like Iran, these countries know very well that if a resolution to renew the sanctions reaches the Security Council, Russia and China will probably veto it, thereby nullifying the threat such a resolution would pose. Thus, for now, Germany, France and Britain are making do with the joint statement they submitted to the IAEA board Tuesday.

“As a result of Iran’s nuclear activities in violation of the JCPOA for more than three years, its nuclear program is now more advanced than at any point in the past,” their statement said, referring to the official name of the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “This is threatening international security and risks undermining the global nonproliferation regime.”

This statement is based on the last two reports submitted by IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi. The latest, submitted in May, said that Iran has around 60 kilograms of uranium enriched to a level of 60 percent, almost double the amount it had in September. Moreover, Iran hasn’t divulged information about the undeclared sites where traces of enriched uranium were found in the past.

Iran countered that it did provide all the requested information. Mohammad Eslami, the head of Iran’s civilian Atomic Energy Organization, was also furious that the reports’ contents were shared with “Iran’s enemies” and pointed a finger at Grossi, who met Friday with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, right, welcomes IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi in Tehran, in March.Credit: AP

Despite the escalating tone of the warnings and protests on both sides, Iran and the Western states both stressed that the negotiations haven’t yet reached the stage where there’s no longer any point in continuing them. Washington has stopped setting target dates for finishing the talks, while Iran hasn’t officially declared them frozen even after President Joe Biden reportedly decided not to remove the Revolutionary Guards from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. According to a report on Iranian state television, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian submitted to Washington a new proposal for renewing the talks.

It’s worth noting that neither Biden nor his aides have ever issued an official statement on the matter; the media relied on leaks and information provided by Bennett. If this was meant to serve as a trial balloon to examine Iran’s response and prepare for the possibility that such an announcement would cause Tehran to quit the talks and bear the blame for their collapse, Iran has so far avoided this trap. It has refrained from making decisive statements that it would be unable to walk back.

But in what appeared to be a response to the joint statement by Germany, France and Britain, Iran decided Wednesday to disconnect two IAEA cameras installed in one of its uranium enrichment facilities (either Fordo or Natanz). Iran claims these cameras violated the agreed inspection protocols. So far, the IAEA doesn’t seem too upset by this move, even though an agreement reached with Iran in February 2021, after Tehran said it would no longer allow IAEA inspectors to maintain the cameras installed in its nuclear facilities or see the footage, required Tehran to let the cameras keep filming despite the fact that it wouldn’t hand over the footage.

Disconnecting these two cameras doesn’t significantly harm the IAEA’s inspection capabilities. But it hints at how Iran intends to exert pressure to advance the negotiations, given that the IAEA and the West both care greatly about inspections.

The prevailing assumption is that both Iran’s steps and those of the Western powers are intended to create a “dialogue of pressure and threats” to replace the “polite dialogue” that characterized the talks to date, but that the goal remains the same – finishing the negotiations and signing the new nuclear deal, a draft of which has reportedly almost been completed. Neither side has a surplus of options, or a surplus of time.

Iran is under tremendous economic pressure, and the current state of the global oil market offers it a huge opportunity to fill its emptying coffers. Though it has already increased the amount of oil it sells to 800,000 barrels a day, up from 200,000 earlier this year, it could quickly sell at least three times that much if the nuclear deal were signed, especially since European countries are seeking alternatives to Russian oil.

For Western countries, especially the United States, quitting the negotiations means losing any chance of the big diplomatic achievement for which Biden had hoped. But more importantly, they understand that the alternative diplomatic option – that is, asking the Security Council to renew the international sanctions on Iran – is a dead end. And the military option, which would embroil Washington in a new Middle Eastern front, is currently out of the question, given that the West is already busy with the Ukrainian front and the struggle against Russia.

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