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Wielding fresh leverage, Iran to play hardball at nuclear talks

November 11, 2021 at 4:19 pm

A worker walks inside of an uranium conversion facility, part of Iran’s Nuclear Power Programme outside the city of Isfahan, Iran [Getty Images]

Iran will adopt an uncompromising stance when it resumes nuclear talks with major powers, betting it has the leverage to win wide sanctions relief in return for curbs on its increasingly advanced atomic technology, officials and analysts say. The stakes are high, since failure in the negotiations resuming in Vienna on 29 November to revive a 2015 nuclear deal would carry the risk of a fresh regional war.

Iran’s arch foe, Israel, has pushed for a tough policy if diplomacy fails to rein in Iran’s nuclear work, long seen by the West as a cover for developing atomic bombs.

Tehran denies it has ever sought to develop nuclear weapons and says it is prepared for war in defence of its atomic programme.

Iranian hardliners believe that a tough approach, spearheaded by their strongly anti-Western Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can force Washington to accept Tehran’s “maximalist demands”, the officials and analysts said.

“Our nuclear facilities are up and running … We can live with or without the deal … The ball is in their court,” said a hard-line Iranian official who asked not to be named.

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“Progress means lifting all those cruel sanctions … Iran has never abandoned the deal. America did.”

Iran began breaching nuclear restrictions under the pact in response to a decision in 2018 by then US President, Donald Trump, to withdraw from the agreement and re-impose harsh sanctions that have devastated Iran’s economy.

In an apparent bid to pressure Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, to lift sanctions, Iran accelerated those breaches by rebuilding enriched uranium stocks, refining it to a higher fissile purity and installing advanced centrifuges to speed up production.

Dramatically upping the ante, Iran has also limited access given to UN nuclear watchdog inspectors under the nuclear deal, restricting their visits to declared nuclear sites only.

Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, tweeted that Tehran was ready “to deliver a good agreement”, but some Western diplomats said a deal hinged on Tehran’s readiness to show flexibility when the talks resume.

Failure to agree by early 2022, they said, would make the pact’s revival less likely due to a key technicality—the longer Iran remains outside the deal, they said, the more nuclear expertise it will gain, shortening the time it might need to race to build a bomb if it chose to.

Kasra Aarabi, senior Iran analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, said by using delays in the talks, advancing its atomic expertise and continuing to support paramilitary allies in the region, Khamenei and his hard-line allies were “genuinely convinced they can intimidate the US into granting more concessions without facing any consequences”.

Failure or success

The fact that indirect talks between Tehran and Washington paused after the June election of hard-line President, Ebrahim Raisi, signalled that the likelihood of failure was greater than chances of success of the negotiations, two Iranian sources close to the country’s power centre told Reuters.

Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the negotiations were bound to fail “if Iran’s opening salvo is indeed its bottom line”.

“By insisting on its maximalist demands, Iran is likely to get neither sanctions relief nor the guarantees it is seeking.”

With differences between Tehran and Washington still vast after six rounds of indirect talks on some key issues—such as the speed and scope of lifting sanctions and how and when Iran will reverse its nuclear steps—chances of a deal seem remote.

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Iran insists on immediate removal of all Trump-era sanctions in a verifiable process. Washington has said it would remove curbs “inconsistent with the 2015 nuclear pact” if Iran resumed compliance with the deal, implying it would leave in place others such as those imposed under terrorism or human rights measures.

Tehran also seeks guarantees that “no US administration” will renege on the pact again. But Biden cannot promise this because the nuclear deal is a non-binding political understanding, not a legally-binding treaty.

The pact, negotiated under former US President Barrack Obama, was not a treaty because there was no way the Democratic president could have secured the approval of the US Senate.

‘Not worth pursuing’

Things are not much better for Biden.

Under the US Constitution, treaties require the consent of two-thirds of the 100-member Senate. Given that it is now split between 50 of Biden’s fellow Democrats and 50 Republicans, there is no plausible way for Biden to meet that threshold.

Many Republican senators detest the nuclear agreement and even some Democrats oppose it. However, Rob Malley, the US special envoy for Iran, said last month: “Our intent is to be faithful to the deal if we could get back in.”

Eurasia Group analyst, Henry Rome, said many hard-liners in Iran were convinced that, since the deal has failed once, “it’s not worth pursuing unless it’s fundamentally altered”.

Despite US sanctions, China has provided a financial lifeline to Iran by importing supplies of Iranian oil that have held above half a million barrels per day on average for the last three months.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.