Umair Jalali describes crucial negotiations Iran nuclear talks restart
The Iran nuclear talks restart deal that was arrived at after painstaking efforts were jeopardized when the Trump administration walked out of it without any credible reason. This step was taken in contravention to the policy of other countries partnering the deal and caused tremendous friction within their ranks. It was the result of incessant goading of the other P-5 countries that the Biden administration reversed the decision of the previous administration and agreed to negotiate the deal once again so that to iron out the American policy apprehensions. In this context negotiations restarted in Vienna more than ten months after they first began and weighed down by yet more uncertainty and mutual distrust.
The point to worry is that time is of essence as with each passing week Iran’s nuclear capabilities are growing, making a return to a deal less and less likely. US envoy is now in for indirect talks mediated by European diplomats, since Washington and Tehran are not talking directly. The Biden administration believes a deal is in sight but if nothing is reached within a few weeks, it could be too late. The Biden administration has reported that a deal that addresses the core concerns of all sides is in sight but if it is not reached in the coming weeks, Iran’s ongoing nuclear advances will make it impossible for the US to return to the agreement’s formal name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
In 2018, the administration of former President Trump unilaterally ditched the deal that had lifted economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs to its nuclear programme. Since then, Tehran has made significant progress in terms of its nuclear activity, increasing uranium enrichment and stockpiles far beyond the parameters of the 2015 agreement. This means it has shrunk its breakout time or the amount of time it would take to be able to build a nuclear bomb. Iran’s leaders say the moves are in response to US sanctions, re-imposed by Trump, that have crippled its economy. In need of economic relief, Iran agreed to engage in six rounds of indirect talks revived by the Biden administration between April and June of 2021.
These efforts, however, faced a setback with the election of hardline anti-Western cleric Ibrahim Raisi to the Iranian presidency in June and consequently the talks were put on hold until November. Since then, they have become bogged down in disagreements over previous negotiations and no significant progress has been made on solving the remaining points of contention. Currently, those points of contention are, so far, looking very difficult to surmount. The US is demanding a reversal of Iran’s nuclear advancements and Iran wants sanctions lifted but both sides want the other to make the first move. Given that the Biden administration cannot guarantee a new deal will be ironclad, considering how quickly the Trump administration tore up the original one, trust is essentially nonexistent implying that the Biden administration could have to make greater concessions to Iran if it wants a deal to happen.
The hardliners were proven right by Trump’s withdrawal from the treaty and that vindication makes it more difficult for the US to convince that same group that is now in power that a nuclear deal is worthwhile. At the same time, Iran has been posturing and sending the message that it is a force to be reckoned with. It revealed a new ballistic missile recently, as its top security official said that in the US there is no coherence to make political decisions in the direction of advancement of the deal. Many experts however are willing to ignore the ballistic missile unveiling as a relatively routine demonstration of military technology that is fitting into their wider strategy of showcasing how much trouble they can cause if military escalations begin.
Interestingly, the Iran nuclear talks restart also come after several weeks of drone and missile attacks on the United Arab Emirates by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are supported by Iran. It is also reported that the US has essentially laid its cards on the table and it is willing to accept a deal with substantially weaker nuclear constraints on Iran compared with the 2015 agreement, in terms of breakout time and to offer Iran sanctions relief or assurances beyond the scope of JCPOA. Tehran’s uranium stockpiles have been enriched to near-weapons grade, and its increasingly advanced centrifuges mean it is reaching a point of no return that could soon render the original JCPOA’s non-proliferation benefits futile.
Most importantly, however, there is also very little appetite in Washington for escalation with Iran, and Biden is keen to reverse a major foreign policy legacy of Trump’s by bringing back the deal. Still, continued deadlock could lead the administration to reverse course and take more aggressive measures, though it has not specified what those measures may be. The current impression conveyed by this issue is that Iran remains in the driving seat and it may be difficult to dislodge it. TW
Umair Jalali teaches in Denning Law School and is an avid sports fan