According to Ali Shamkhani, the Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, the task of the Iranian negotiator in the new round of nuclear negotiations which began on 7 February is limited to lifting sanctions. His tweet to that effect pre-empted the talks in Vienna. This has been confirmed by a number of other Iranian officials, who sent a clear message that any solution must start from the sanctions issue.
The negotiations had paused for a week, during which the delegations returned to their capitals for consultations. Apparently, the Iranian delegation was more determined to restore the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was approved by the administration of former US President Barack Obama. This makes me rather sceptical of the diplomatic claims that a great deal of progress has been made in terms of negotiation, or that the parties are close to reaching a final formula.
This round of talks began in a strained atmosphere, with the US preoccupied with the Ukrainian crisis, and the EU countries also interested in Ukraine, but seemingly determined to revive the JCPOA. European countries are hoping to enjoy a boost to their national economies if sanctions against Iran are lifted.
It is difficult to read Israel's position on all of this, as it appears to stand against reviving the 2015 agreement, despite its conviction that this would mean Iran could develop its nuclear programme without limits. Everyone agrees that having no restrictions would be dangerous, and could lead to Iran producing a nuclear bomb in just a few weeks. Israel has warned about this before anyone else, and has proposed a military strike to end Tehran's nuclear ambitions, although this is not a risk-free option either, which explains the reluctance to go ahead with it. Nobody can predict with confidence how Iran might react.
The problem with lifting sanctions is not limited to the funds that this would release; it would also remove the obstacles to Iran being a partner in global trade, including arms production and sales. In this regard, many countries in the region fear that Iran will benefit by being able to expand its weapons industry and sell them to hostile parties.
The statement by Mohammad Bagheri, the Chief of the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, that his country will become one of the largest arms exporters in the world if the US sanctions are lifted does not help to allay any fears in this regard. Given that Iran has developed ballistic missiles, drones and its navy while it is basically under siege, what could it do if sanctions are lifted and it is free to trade around the world?
On the eve of the negotiations, Saeed Jalili reappeared. He is important not only as the presidential candidate who withdrew in favour of President Ibrahim Raisi, but also because he is a former nuclear negotiator. Ali Bagheri Kani, the assistant foreign minister and head of the current Iranian negotiating team, worked as Jalili's assistant when the latter was Iran's chief negotiator during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government (2008-2011), and the two men still have a good relationship. Reports in some media say that Jalili, a fundamentalist who is close to the decision-making process and a member of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, submitted a paper in which he protested against the negotiation track, calling for more firmness in the Iranian position.
His office quickly denied the reports, which were attributed to a group close to him monitoring foreign policy. What is certain is that this paper represents the point of view of the fundamentalists, who reject the negotiations in their current form. They call for an immediate withdrawal from the talks in Vienna and for Iran to continue enriching uranium. Moreover, in alignment with the fundamentalist Iranian vision, the paper suggested that neither the US nor the UN Security Council should be feared as long as Iran enjoys the friendship of Russia and China. The logic is that more force must be shown to get the US to return to direct negotiations, which fits in with the mutual "edge of the abyss" relationship which has existed between Tehran and Washington for years. What the paper could not guarantee, though, is that the US will not resort to a sudden blow against Iran's nuclear facilities.
It is fairly obvious that the fundamentalists in Iran have not learnt from previous mistakes. Underestimating the international community, especially during the Ahmadinejad era, led to an unprecedented intensification of pressure on Iran, which reached its peak with UN Resolution 1929 in June 2010 which really suffocated the country and paved the way for its economic isolation and current fragile position.
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The US negotiator is also under pressure and stressing that time is important, and that if an agreement is delayed, the talks will become meaningless. According to CNN, influential officials in the Biden administration have given negotiators until the end of this month, and if the agreement is not saved by then, there will be no alternative to the military option. Furthermore, as statements confirmed that a new deal is imminent, more than thirty Republican Senators, led by Ted Cruz, warned President Joe Biden against making any deal with Iran without first presenting it to the Senate for approval. Opponents point out that any new agreement must have the support of two-thirds of Congress, but would still be non-binding on the next US president.
Optimism about the outcome of the current negotiations remains difficult, not only because of the internal pressures — US negotiators obliged to make changes to the agreement; the Iranians calling for the complete lifting of sanctions — but also because of the other Iranian demand for a pledge that a new deal will remain in effect even when the US administration changes. The difficulty in this is that it is not related to America's relationship with Iran, but to the nature of the US political system, which refuses to make any agreement or treaty binding on future administrations. At the moment, the Iranian negotiator does not want to understand this, and instead insists on pressing for a guarantee which the Biden administration cannot provide.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 14 February 2022
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.