After a break of nearly five months, the five signatories to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) nuclear agreement with Iran are talking again in an attempt to revive the deal. They face a number of challenges.
For a start, there is US insistence, backed by France, Britain and Germany, that it will only return to the JCPA if Iran commits itself to the restrictions it stipulated originally. However, Iran is rejecting this condition.
Instead, Tehran insists that the US should lift its sanctions imposed as a condition for Iran's return to compliance with the terms of the agreement, as well as a pledge from Washington not to leave the JCPA at a later date. In short, that the US should not to repeat the actions of former President Donald Trump, who withdrew America from the deal in 2018.
Moreover, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has expressed its concern that Iran's stockpile of 60 per cent enriched uranium amounts to 17.7 kilograms. It is also concerned about restrictions that hinder its inspectors' access to Iran's nuclear sites.
Israel, meanwhile, is putting pressure on the US not to revive the nuclear agreement. It threatens to attack Iran, which it believes is on the verge of becoming a nuclear-armed state. Israel, of course, has had nuclear weapons for decades, but does not allow IAEA inspectors anywhere near its nuclear facilities.
Finally, the commander of US Central Command, General Frank McKenzie, has warned that American forces are ready with a military option should the Vienna talks fail. He also claimed that Iran is very close to making a nuclear weapon and has already demonstrated that its long-range missiles are capable of striking targets accurately.
It is not possible to predict in advance the success or failure of the Vienna negotiations, but it is possible to predict what the US and Israel will do no matter what happens, given the declared positions related to national security and interests in the region. Israeli leaders and strategy experts know that the size of the Iranian nuclear project is still limited, but it allows the production of a few nuclear explosive devices. As far as they are concerned, therefore, it is a priority to address this threat now while Iran's ability to defend its nuclear facilities against covert operations, cyber or conventional attacks is still limited, as is its ability to inflict heavy damage on Israeli targets, according to Yossi Kuperwasser, a researcher at the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs.
Kuperwasser added that during a visit to Washington he heard just one message from members of Congress: Do not count on American support, nor on a direct US operation. Israel is on its own, and should do what it thinks it has to do. In this context, what does General McKenzie mean when he says that US forces are ready for the military option in the event that the Vienna talks fail?
It is fairly clear that the Biden administration has resorted to threatening language on the eve of the resumption of the talks with the aim of getting Iran to soften its position, but Washington's likely position remains to return to the JCPA on terms that secure its interests, without provoking Iran. Nevertheless, we cannot rule out the US resorting to a military option more serious than what it is already involved in against Iran and its allies.
If the talks in Vienna fail, on the face of it the US can be expected to do more of the same, with cyber and conventional attacks against Iran and its allies, especially in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Israel will probably do likewise, but at a more intense pace, especially in Syria and against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in occupied Palestine.
We cannot rule out an Israeli air strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, but this would be conditional on direct support from the US, which seems unlikely at the present time. However, the position of the US and Israel towards Hezbollah and Hamas has to be taken into account. The US and other Western countries are beginning to regard Hezbollah as a regional power, which, with Iran's support, plays an active role in Syria, Palestine and Yemen, not to mention its position and influence in Lebanon. Hence, US sanctions on anyone deemed by Washington to be an active partner or supporter of Hezbollah. The US has expanded its international campaign to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation and to target those who support it financially or cooperate with it politically.
Israel, like America, fears Hezbollah's growing power, but it avoids attacking it directly militarily, in case open war results. Israeli political and military leaders know that Hezbollah has missile capabilities that would enable it to destroy large parts of the economic and military infrastructure within the occupation state, as well as its offshore oil and gas facilities.
Moreover, Israel fears the growing capabilities of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, especially in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1948, and their success in pushing the public to rise up and engage in daily resistance operations against the Zionist enemy.
Like America, Israel also fears that Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad will acquire advanced capabilities to manufacture and use armed drones. It is notable in this regard that the Americans believe that the bombing of their military base in Al-Tanf, south-east Syria near the borders with Iraq and Jordan, a few days ago was probably carried out by a drone, although they haven't yet determined whether the drone was Syrian or Hezbollah's, or if it was from one of the Iranian-backed resistance groups. What Lebanon fears most at this critical stage is for Israel to make even more efforts to ignite a civil war in the country, which, in Tel Aviv's opinion, will compel Hezbollah to focus its efforts at home, reducing resistance actions against Israel.
There is a lot at stake on the talks in Vienna. Even if they succeed in producing a new agreement, though, it is likely that we will see the US and Israel going ahead with attacks on Iran, in one way or another.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 28 November 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.