At first glance, it would seem that all signs are pointing toward an impending nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 world powers.
“The recent Qatar talks were bad,” said Raz Zimmt, Iran scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “But the round in Vienna seemed more positive.”
“We are close to an agreement,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani told journalists on Monday, “but on the condition that Iran’s red lines are respected and the main interests of the country are provided.”
Also on Monday, Iran’s foreign minister said Tehran would deliver its “final” proposal on reviving its 2015 nuclear accord by midnight, after Washington accepted key demands.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, in coordination with Washington, offered significant concessions to Iran in a draft finalized last Monday, and gave Tehran an August 15 deadline to respond.
But the US and Europe should not expect any firm answer from the Islamic Republic Monday night.
“Many of the reasons Iran has said no so far still hold today,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “If past is prologue, it is most likely that Iran will try to muddle through.”
Even if Iran is unhappy with Borrell’s offer, it is unlikely to walk away anytime soon. Keeping the negotiations alive indefinitely serves the regime’s interests in the short term in two important ways, Ben Taleblu told The Times of Israel.
First, it serves as a diplomatic shield for Iran against the possibility of an Israeli military strike. Second, it keeps the US from finally turning to a Plan B, which would likely consist of enhanced sanctions, combined with covert sabotage of its nuclear program.
Waiting for more
With Europe and the US doing little to hide their eagerness to find a way back to the deal, Iran is not likely to stress over Western threats to walk away either. For what it’s worth, regime press outlets certainly have not been treating Borrell’s deadline with much urgency.
Instead, Iran is likely to ask for clarification and definitions, while it works to wring more concessions out of countries that desperately want an agreement — the US included.
Even the recent reminders about the many ways in which the Iranian regime violates international law and supports violence across the globe do not seem to have dampened US President Joe Biden’s determination to reach a deal.
Earlier this month, the Iran-funded Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group fired over 1,100 rockets from Gaza toward Israel during the three-day Operation Breaking Dawn. PIJ leader Ziad al-Nakhaleh was in Tehran, meeting with Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi at the outset of the conflict.
On Wednesday, the US Justice Department charged a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps with plotting to murder former president Donald Trump’s ex-national security adviser John Bolton.
And only three days ago, a 24-year-old US man of Lebanese descent stabbed Salman Rushdie, the author against whom Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini issued a 1989 fatwa calling for his death. Iranian officials have brazenly blamed Rushdie for his own attack.
But none of these episodes has shifted Biden’s stance. The White House seemed determined to avoid pinning any blame for Rushdie’s murder on Iran, which has never rescinded the fatwa or pushed the 15th Khordad Foundation — which is supervised by Iran’s supreme leader — to remove the bounty on Rushdie.
The first two statements in the wake of the attack came from National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and from Biden himself. They condemned the attack and thanked the first responders, but neglected to mention the fatwa, the bounty, or Iran at all.
It took until Sunday for Secretary of State Antony Blinken to point a finger at Tehran. “Iranian state institutions have incited violence against Rushdie for generations, and state-affiliated media recently gloated about the attempt on his life,” he said in a statement. “This is despicable.”
Iran recognizes that the Biden administration, in addition to wanting to focus on competition with Russia and China and on domestic issues, also sees negotiations with Iran as useful in and of themselves. “They believe that even floating the offer of talks serves as a cap on Iranian nuclear escalations,” said Ben Taleblu.
Blurring of tracks
The Europeans, too, have shown this week that they are willing to keep making concessions.
Throughout the years of negotiations, there have been two parallel tracks. The discussions with the P5+1 over the deal — known formally as the JCPOA — represent the political track around an agreement, while inspections by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) represent the technical track.
Iran has sought to link the two, demanding that the IAEA close its probes into manufactured nuclear material found at three undeclared sites in the country before it reenters the JCPOA. The IAEA has turned up its pressure on Iran over the sites, formally censuring it in June.
Until this week, the Western powers have maintained that IAEA technical inspections are not covered by the 2015 deal, and are a separate issue.
Worryingly, it seems that the EU is backing off that insistence. According to Politico, the EU draft links the JCPOA track to the IAEA probes, proposing that Washington, Germany, France, and the UK “take note of Iran’s intent” to resolve its dispute with the IAEA by the time the JCPOA comes back into force.
With this linkage, even if the IAEA were not satisfied with Iranian explanations regarding the sites under investigation, it would be under massive pressure to close its probes if Iran threatened to walk away from a deal because of them. Diplomats told Politico that it could also harm the IAEA’s credibility as an independent actor.
IAEA spokespeople did not respond to The Times of Israel’s requests for comments on the EU draft.
The Borrell draft would also reportedly water down US sanctions on Iran by allowing non-Americans to trade with Iranian entities that do business with the Revolutionary Guards. As it stands now, those transactions would trigger penalties by the US.
US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley denied any changes to US sanctions. “We have not engaged in any negotiation about changing due diligence, know-your-customer, or other US sanctions compliance standards for sanctions that would remain under a mutual return to full JCPOA implementation,” he tweeted.
Despite their best efforts to move things forward over the past 16 months, Western leaders are still stuck waiting for Tehran.
“In the end, we’re left with the open question,” said Zimmt, “whether the supreme leader and the Guardian Council are ready to make a clear decision right now to return to the agreement.”
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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