After months of expectations that a breakthrough in the Vienna talks on Iran’s nuclear program was only a matter of time, the chances of success are now looking increasingly remote.
Earlier this month, Iran’s deputy foreign minister said negotiations on restoring the nuclear deal will not resume until the hardliner Ebrahim Raisi takes office as president on August 5.
Though both sides have significant incentives to return to the deal, Iran’s aggressive negotiating demands and steady progress in its nuclear program have created a gap between the sides that looks increasingly difficult to bridge.
Furthermore, it is not entirely clear now that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei still wants to return to a deal, despite the Biden administration’s clear desire to finalize one.
Back in the box
Iran and the US have been holding indirect talks in Vienna since April over a return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which granted Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for significant curbs on its nuclear program.
Former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions against Iran, which led the Islamic Republic to step up uranium enrichment to its highest-ever levels in violation of the accord.
The new US administration, in contrast, has been open about its eagerness to restore the nuclear deal.
“Biden had from the start been explicit that he wants to get back into the JCPOA and put the Iran nuclear program in a box so that Biden can deal with a million other problems facing him on day one when he took office, both foreign and domestic policy,” said Jonathan Ruhe, director of foreign policy at The Jewish Institute for National Security of America.
The Biden administration has even shown itself willing to allow Iran access to frozen assets abroad, which Iran has dismissed as empty gestures.
“Clearly the regime is not feeling the economic noose as tightly as they were,” said Richard Goldberg, senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The sixth round of talks adjourned in late June, and while the Biden administration has expressed interest in returning to the negotiating table, US officials have voiced increasing pessimism regarding the chances for an agreement.
The equation for a deal seems straightforward: Iran rolls back its nuclear program to the terms laid out in great detail by the JCPOA, while the US rolls back most Trump-era sanctions.
But Iran — or at least the hardline elements around Ali Khamenei — is demanding more. Tehran wants all the sanctions removed, including those dealing with terrorism and other non-nuclear issues.
Iranian negotiators are also demanding guarantees that the US cannot withdraw from a deal again without UN approval. The demand is an obvious non-starter, as an agreement by a US administration is not binding on any future ones, and it is utterly unthinkable — not to mention unconstitutional — that the US would give countries like Russia and China veto power over its foreign policy at the UN.
The blunt — some would also say unsophisticated — approach taken by the Iranian negotiating team is a stark contrast to its skillful maneuvering from 2013 to 2015 that led to a deal.
“Iran did a great job building up leverage in the previous talks leading to the 2015 deal,” said Ruhe.
Tehran is looking to build leverage this time around as well, including through its proxy militias in Iraq, which are believed to be behind a series of recent drone attacks on US bases in the country.
Iranian intelligence agents even plotted to kidnap an Iranian-American journalist in Brooklyn and spirit her off to Iran.
Most significantly, the Iranians have been openly escalating its nuclear program beyond the agreement’s limits: in the numbers and types of centrifuges they are running, in the quantities and levels of uranium they are enriching — up to 60 percent — and in their production of uranium metal.
“Even the Biden administration, which wants a deal badly, is having a hard time saying, ‘We’ll give in to the pressure,'” said Ruhe.
Iran began to openly abrogate its responsibilities under the JCPOA in July 2019, and has been accelerating its program and limiting access to its nuclear sites after the Guardian Council passed a law in December 2020 requiring the government to do so if sanctions were not lifted.
Facts on the ground
The Iranian advances might render a return to the original JCPOA impossible, even if Iran were willing to remove its unrealistic demands.
“There is a series of new facts on the ground that Iran has been creating in its nuclear program,” said Goldberg.
The JCPOA was crafted before Iran had developed new advanced centrifuges, which enable them to advance far more quickly to a bomb. Moreover, Iran been building out its nuclear facilities, including the underground Fordo nuclear facility and a new underground centrifuge production site at Natanz.
Since the facilities did not exist in 2015, it is not at all clear that a return to the JCPOA would necessitate their dismantlement. In any event, the Iranian program is going to be far more advanced than the deal ever imagined, and the Iranians will still possess all the knowledge they have gained over the past two years.
To make matters more complicated, Iran’s program is much more opaque now than it was in 2015.
In late February, Iran limited the IAEA’s access to nuclear sites it had been monitoring as part of the 2015 deal.
A three-month agreement reached on February 21 allowing some inspections to continue was extended by another month in May. Under that deal Iran pledged to keep recordings “of some activities and monitoring equipment” and hand them over to the IAEA as and when US sanctions are lifted.
In June, Iran said it would not hand over the footage.
“We have some idea of how advanced Iran’s nuclear program is. But there’s much more ambiguity now around it than there was before talks started,” Ruhe explained.
That ambiguity makes a new deal difficult as well. Without knowing how advanced Iran’s program is — how significant its enriched uranium stockpiles are and how many centrifuges are running — the Americans cannot be sure of what they are trying to get the Iranians to concede.
What does Khamenei want?
Iran’s negotiating posture raises questions about what Khamenei’s endgame is.
One possibility is that the supreme leader’s strategic direction has not changed, and he ultimately wants to get to back to the agreement. That would mean his negotiators have been playing for time as a negotiating tactic, seeing how far they can push the Biden administration.
“They may be saying, we’ve already pocketed all of these sanctions from the Americans, we still want more,” Goldberg said.
“In my opinion, it’s not only Biden who wants to put the nuclear issues ‘back into the box’ but also Khamenei,” said Raz Zimmt, Iran scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies.
A deal will help Iran deal with its economic woes, grant it increased legitimacy on the world stage, and indicate to the West that Raisi is more moderate than he seems right now.
Still, this does not guarantee that the Iranians will ultimately agree to a deal.
“Even though the Iranians have incentives to get the sanctions relief secured, the hardliners in Iran always seem to have a hard time bringing themselves to say yes to anything with the Americans,” said Ruhe.
It is also conceivable, however, that Khamenei has decided not to reenter the agreement.
“They would prefer to bypass sanctions through countries like China, and create a ‘resistance economy,'” said Zimmt.
In this telling, the Iranians understand that there will never be any guarantees that US will not reimpose sanctions in the future, and the Biden administration itself will push for “longer and stronger” sanctions in a follow-on deal.
Khamenei would thus be continuing to negotiate in order to give the Iranian program as much time as possible to advance while the West is focused on the talks, and so Tehran can blame the US when the talks fail.
Domestic blame game
Within Iran, a blame game has broken out between the outgoing Hassan Rouhani administration and the incoming Raisi team.
“The situation now is that the main argument is not between Iran and the world powers, but within Iran,” explained Zimmt.
Rouhani and Mohammad Javad Zarif’s foreign ministry are trying to write their political wills, said Zimmt.
Zarif wrote a letter to the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee on July 11, laying out his view on the JCPOA and on the ongoing negotiations with the US.
The letter defended the deal, and put blame on the Iranian deep state for failing to take advantage of the deal’s potential and for not reciprocating American attempts to find common ground this year.
The hardliners, including the Revolutionary Guards and their allies, blame Rouhani and Zarif for failing to defend Iranian interests and red lines, and for not adhering to the December 2020 law on accelerating Iran’s nuclear program.
Ultimately, however, the decision lies with Khamenei and Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.
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