The negotiations between Iran and five world powers on restoring the 2015 nuclear agreement resumed in Vienna Monday with great mutual suspicion, following a 10-day hiatus.
After seven previous rounds of talks ended without a breakthrough, Washington and Tehran are each waiting to see if the other side’s position has softened during the break. The U.S. delegation, whose members do not take part in direct talks with their Iranian counterparts, expects the regime in Tehran to back down from the extreme opening positions it presented in the previous round. Iran refused to return to understandings reached in the past and conditioned any progress in the talks upon Washington lifting sanctions.
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Senior U.S. officials, speaking with their Israeli counterparts, estimated that chances of the talks producing a deal are low. Despite this, Israel has lately warned that Washington’s willingness to return for another round of talks indicates that it may yield on the sanctions issue, even in exchange for a deal that won’t conclusively hamper Iran’s continued nuclear efforts.
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Time is running out: According to estimates in Israel, if no deal is reached by the end of January, Iran will cross a significant technological threshold that will render the understandings from 2015 meaningless. The Biden administration also believes it pointless to stretch out the talks any longer.
“We have shown our allies more than a bit of hard intel,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. He said it was “not just opinions and positions, but intelligence proving that Iran is fooling the world in a completely methodical manner. All they care about is getting the sanctions removed so that billions of dollars can flow to the nuclear program, to Hezbollah, to Syria, to Iraq, to the terror network they’ve deployed all over the world.”
Lapid has made recent visits to countries involved in the talks (Britain, France, Russia and the United States) in an attempt to influence the talks. “Israel isn’t opposed to any deal,” Lapid claimed. “A good deal is good. We oppose a deal that has no true way of monitoring the Iranian nuclear program, money or terror network.”
U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan paid a visit to Israel last week in a bid to mollify its leaders. He promised that sanctions would not be removed without assurances of an Iranian withdrawal from its nuclear program. A senior Israeli figure was surprised that Washington failed to anticipate Iranian intransigence and has no plan B should the talks fail.
Sullivan did however manage to calm his listeners somewhat. He reported a unified front of the other parties against Iran and, in an interview with Haaretz that same day, announced a clear deadline for the end of the talks, to prevent Iran from dragging them out while advancing its nuclear program.
Israeli officials believe the chances of the parties returning to the original nuclear deal are slim, and have sketched out two main scenarios: One is a collapse of the talks, leading to a “controlled conflict” with Iran in the near future, possibly convincing it to return to the table later; the other scenario is one in which the U.S. and other powers agree to a partial deal (dubbed “less for less”) to reduce the sanctions in return for downgraded Iranian nuclear concessions.
Sullivan himself tried to assuage Israeli fears, hinting that the U.S. may escalate its conduct toward Iran should the talks fail. “The Biden administration has added sanctions on Iran, not removed any. We want to make sure that the sanctions regime on the Iranian economy is enforced and we are discussing with our partners, including Israel, what form the pressure may take in the future. I won’t elaborate further.”