The nuclear deal talks are dragging on. As the US won’t lift sanctions on Iran, the latter continues its uranium enrichment programme.
In early December, the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program resumed in Vienna. Their success, however, is by no means guaranteed. In fact, given that Iran has now retracted from what had been agreed back in the summer, not even a continuation of the talks into 2022 should be taken for granted. The alternatives to diplomacy, though, are bleak.
At least three issues stand in the way of a renewed compromise that would see Iran’s purportedly civilian nuclear program severely constrained in return for a lifting of international – primarily US – sanctions. The first is Washington’s apparent unwillingness to signal to the other signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal that it intends to honor the agreement this time. The second is Iran’s nuclear progress, in particular on stockpiling enriched uranium as well as on centrifuge research and development, which puts the country far too close to ‘threshold power’ status for its neighbors to countenance. And, lastly, the region’s more fundamental geopolitical shifts due to a hardening Sino-American rivalry, with Russia throwing itself in the mix, have turned cooperation on the nuclear issue increasingly difficult.
Over a year ago, when he was still on the campaign trail and not yet in the Oval Office, Joe Biden announced his firm intention to return to the 2015 landmark agreement that his predecessor had abandoned. This led many observers to believe he would opt for a speedy resumption of talks, ideally to conclude before the June 2021 presidential election in Iran that was predetermined to usher in a hardliner.
Yet not only has Biden’s team of experienced diplomats failed to make an early offer simply by officially ending the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. The US administration has also provided little detail about the “longer and stronger” deal it supposedly aims for, let alone which course it would take in case negotiations should break down. At the same time, Iran is demanding some sort of a guarantee that Washington will not again walk away from an international agreement endorsed by the UN Security Council, at least under the current administration (Tehran holds no illusions about a possible Republican successor to Biden).
Secondly, Iran’s advances continue to worry not just those hawks that never put much stock into any negotiated solution bar full surrender, but also the UN’s nuclear watchdog. The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, has issued several scathing reports lately, and its director general, Rafael Grossi, has travelled to Tehran numerous times this year to resolve tricky questions around the agency’s impeded ability to monitor Iranian nuclear activities.
Since February this year, Tehran has “seriously compromised” the IAEA’s oversight of nuclear-related sites, such as uranium mines, conversion facilities, or centrifuge assemblies. For example, after an alleged act of sabotage at a centrifuge workshop in Karaj in June, Iran removed all remaining IAEA cameras there and allowed the agency to install new monitoring equipment only after much wrangling and a half-year hiatus in supervision. This deprives the international community of vital on-the-ground knowledge of Iran’s production of advanced centrifuges, meaning it will be hard to make an inventory of the country’s nuclear infrastructure at a later stage.
Already, the nuclear confrontation has spread to the other side of the Persian Gulf, fusing with a long-standing rivalry over regional dominance. The Unit Arab Emirates now runs the Arab World’s first nuclear reactor, with three more to go online over the next couple of years, while Saudi Arabia is hoping to get a nuclear program going without the nonproliferation constraints that Abu Dhabi has agreed to. Riyadh has also made it clear that it will acquire ‘the bomb’ the moment Tehran has one (or at least makes the world believe so).
This quest for the ultimate weapon is about to get more urgent with the US’ now palpable shift of focus towards China, for which it wants to extract itself from the region. Arab allies have felt this quite strongly over the past years when Washington did not come to their aid after repeated attacks, presumably carried out by Iranian proxies, on their oil infrastructure.
Consequently, some of the Gulf states have begun to pursue a dual-track strategy of sorts, including teaming up with Israel through the 2020 Abraham Accords whilst also reaching out to Iran to ease tensions. While Tel Aviv is seen as a potential security provider against an Iranian threat in the likely absence of the US, talking to Tehran is a sign of recognition that the Iranian strategy – to demonstrate that its neighbors cannot feel secure if the Islamic Republic itself feels imperiled – has paid off.
Any cooperation resulting from such a rapprochement would be welcome indeed. However, with the United States on its way out, China – at least commercially, but also politically – expanding into the region, and Russia having established itself as a hard security broker, any confrontation between those three global rivals could play out around the Gulf, possibly sparked by a local crisis. Equally, the low-level conflict between Israel and Iran could get out of hand quickly, whether through direct confrontation in Syria or via the increasingly sophisticated cyber punches the two countries lob at one another.
Against this backdrop, it is hard to see the global powers unite at the nuclear negotiation table as they did during the last round of talks between 2013 and 2015. Nonetheless, there is an expectation in Western capitals that Iran has made the decision to return to the deal in order to relieve the sanctions pressure hurting its economy. Ironically, having been subjected to intrusive inspections as part of the 2015 deal, it is now Tehran that is demanding stringent verification of the others’ commitments, chiefly sanctions relief.
However, a simple (as it were) return to the original agreement with strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program allowing for the lifting of international sanctions is increasingly moot, due to Tehran’s technological progress as well as the unpredictability of US policy hampering the resumption of Western business. Instead, an interim deal offering ‘less for less’ is now seen as a milestone to a possible ‘more for more’ agreement later. Instead of easing sanctions (to no avail), the US and other countries like the United Kingdom or South Korea could unfreeze Iranian assets held in return for Iran ending uranium enrichment above 4% and halting the installation of advanced centrifuges. To kickstart negotiations, Washington should also ensure that its sanctions regime does not prevent humanitarian trade, including the delivery of vaccines against Covid-19 or medical supplies.
Last time, the talks with Iran took twelve years to conclude an agreement while the nuclear confrontation itself had festered. This time around, the world cannot afford such negligence.