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Analysis

In seventh round of nuclear talks, Iran’s intentions will finally become clear

Khamenei had plenty of reasons to stall, but if there’s no change in Tehran’s stance, the West needs a Plan B — with options ranging from a military strike to US concessions

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

In this picture released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, reviews armed forces with Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, during a graduation ceremony at Iran's Air Defense Academy, in Tehran, Iran, October 30, 2019. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)
In this picture released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, reviews armed forces with Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, during a graduation ceremony at Iran's Air Defense Academy, in Tehran, Iran, October 30, 2019. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Negotiators will meet in Vienna on Monday for the first indirect nuclear talks between Iran and the US in nearly six months. The hiatus was much longer than originally anticipated, and in the interim, an agreement has looked ever more unlikely.

Some, like Israel, believe Iran is deliberately stalling on talks to give itself time to build up its nuclear capacity. However, others believe that that Iranians themselves do not yet know if they want to return to the original nuclear deal, or how to get there.

Senior diplomats from Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia plan to meet Iranian officials in Vienna on Monday to discuss bringing Tehran back into compliance with the 2015 deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which eased sanctions on Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear program. The talks could pave the way for the US to rejoin the accord.

The United States pulled out under former President Donald Trump and reimposed sanctions on Iran, prompting Tehran to abandon all the limits the deal placed on it. That has raised tensions across the wider Mideast as Israel has warned it won’t allow Iran to be able to obtain a nuclear weapon

As summer turned into fall, Iran pressed on toward nuclear weapons capability. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported earlier this month that Tehran had significantly increased its stockpile of highly enriched uranium in recent weeks, reaching 113.8 kg (251 lbs) enriched to 20 percent, up from 84.3 (186 lbs) in September, and 17.7 kg (39 lbs) enriched up to 60%, up from 10 kg (22 lbs).

“Every three months we wake up and discover that they’ve advanced,” said Raz Zimmt, an Iran scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies.”What did we expect?”

“Regarding fissile material, they are very close,” said Zimmt, estimating that it would take 3-4 weeks to enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon. They would still have to build a detonator and a delivery system, which could take up to two years.

What’s more, it remains unclear whether Iran even wants a deal, or whether it is stalling for time, as Israel argues, to continue to enrich.

“Iran wants to appear interested in negotiation and agreement,” said Eytan Gilboa of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “But it’s not clear at all they are willing to make the concessions necessary to achieve an agreement.”

In this photo released Novenber 4, 2019 by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, its head Ali Akbar Salehi speaks with the media while visiting the Natanz enrichment facility in central Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

The Islamic Republic is after a full removal of sanctions and immunity from a military strike, said Gilboa, goals that it is unlikely to achieve.

Others argue that Iran’s leadership, especially Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has not yet decided what course to take.

“What has happened over the last year, year and a half at least, is that Iran is mistrustful,” explained Ori Goldberg of Reichman University’s Lauder School of Government. “I don’t think Iran considers the US and the West approaching these negotiations in good faith. I think a lot of what they’re doing is trying to figure out if this is genuine, and not just dallying for the purpose of increasing their fissionable material stockpile.”

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi speaks before parliament in the capital Tehran, on August 25, 2021. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Even if Khamenei does decide he wants to cut a deal, hardline President Ebrahim Raisi is not going to be an easy negotiating partner.

“For Raisi, it is politically difficult to be perceived as being as open and welcoming, which wasn’t the case for Rouhani,” said Goldberg.

Raisi has to take into consideration the sentiments of his supporters, and the more intransigent members of his administration, he argued. “They’re going to be a little difficult and ornery about the whole thing, but they still very much want to be there.”

The fight over the banks

Iran is not the only country with unreasonable expectations from the talks. While in Morocco last week, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that in the “best-case scenario,” a deal would address not only the issue of uranium enrichment but with missiles and Iran’s activities in the region, namely its support for proxies throughout the Middle East.

Benny Gantz, center, is welcomed by Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, in Rabat, Morocco, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. (AP/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

“A good deal would be a deal that sealed the holes of the current deal in terms of nuclear enrichment, launch systems, the deal’s duration, and what Iran is doing in the region,” he said.

That is not at all on the table. Though US officials have been stressing that time is running out, they are still eager to reach some sort of deal with Iran on the nuclear issue alone. If a narrow agreement on enrichment and inspections is there for the taking, the Biden Administration is not about to gum up the works by bringing up new sensitive issues that will take months to discuss.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, in London and Paris this week for talks on the Vienna negotiations, seems to be taking a more modest approach. In his talks with Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron, Lapid will seek to ensure that banking sanctions against Iran remain in place, Channel 13 reported.

But Iran is coming to Vienna determined first and foremost to have those very sanctions removed. It is no coincidence that Iran’s negotiating team includes the deputy governor of Iran’s Central Bank, and senior officials from the trade and economy ministries.

The Central Bank of Iran (Courtesy)

Making Israel’s position even weaker, US officials seem to be sending messages to Israel not to get in the way of talks.

Last week, US officials warned Israel that its attacks against the Iranian nuclear program are counterproductive and have enabled Tehran to rebuild an even more efficient enrichment system, then leaked those warnings to the New York Times.

Over the weekend, US defense officials also outed Israel for carrying out a covert operation, telling the New York Times that Israel was responsible for a cyberattack against Iran’s nationwide fuel system last month.

Time is running out

Though expectations are low for significant movement for a deal during this round, there is likely to be one important outcome.

In the previous six rounds of talks, Iran’s unreasonable demands could be explained by Iran wanting to simply play for time as it worked toward a bomb, or by the opposite position — that Iran sought a deal, but was simply trying to squeeze more concessions out of the US.

Now, with the US fast running out of patience, Iran’s true intentions will become apparent.

President Barack Obama, standing with Vice President Joe Biden, delivers remarks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 14, 2015, after an Iran nuclear deal is reached. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

“If we don’t see after this round some sort of flexibility in the Iranian positions, then there is no choice but to come to final conclusion that they don’t want to come back to the agreement,” said Zimmt.

And if that turns out to be the case, then what?

There is probably no one in the region who actually thinks Joe Biden would ever order a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program. Senior US officials aren’t even trying to go through the motions of trying to make Iran fear an attack. They almost always speak of “other options” — and not “all options” — being on the table should diplomacy fail.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his ministers have been trying to convince Iran that a military strike is a possibility, but that too is unlikely. The IDF let its capabilities for such an operation erode, and is scrambling to get its operational plans and munitions back in order.

IAF and AFCENT F-15 and F-16 jets are seen over southern Israel during the ‘Desert Eagle’ drill, August 10, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

But even when the military is ready, Israel’s political and diplomatic reality won’t be. Bennett’s ideologically unwieldy coalition would likely be torn apart by a strike. Israel’s US and European allies — which Bennett and Lapid have been working hard to win over — will be furious that Israel is pulling them into a seething Middle East when they’d rather be dealing with COVID, energy prices, and the economy.

If a military strike is not Plan B, the other options aren’t likely to change Iranian behavior. The US could try to add more sanctions with Chinese and Russian support, and it try to increase pressure through UN Security Council resolutions. It could also agree to a limited “less-for-less” deal with Iran that only deals with specific aspects of Tehran’s nuclear program.

Or the Biden Administration will lose its nerve, and try to break the diplomatic logjam by removing sanctions upfront.

“The US will pay in cash, and get checks in return,” predicted Gilboa.

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