Alex Petriashvili, Senior Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
From the statements and promises made by Joseph Biden during the election campaign, it became clear that the foreign policy priorities of the 46th President of the United States would differ from the policies pursued by his predecessor the four years prior. These differences were especially vivid in terms of the 2015 Nuclear Deal with Iran: Joseph Biden and his team did not conceal the fact that they would certainly consider rejoining the deal. However, unlike the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which the United States returned to on the second day of Biden’s presidency, members of his next administration have never said that they would unconditionally and immediately return to the Iran agreement and lift the sanctions.
The Iranian side, particularly the most influential and radical religious wing led by spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei, has taken an even tougher stance in response, which is reflected not only in their statements but also in concrete actions. In fact, from the time of the announcement of results of the US elections to the president’s inauguration, Iran began to increase the 3.67% rate of uranium enrichment set by the agreement almost by the day, violating the 2015 deal. However, these figures were relatively modest until the end of November 2020, when head of Iran’s nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated. The Iranian Mejlis immediately supported the increase of enrichment of uranium up to 20%, and demanded the suspension of the activities of UN inspectors.
The muscle flexing continued for some time after the elections, or, more precisely, after the inauguration. However, this was a more preliminary prepositioning ahead of the anticipated negotiations expected by all parties. The rigid positions of the parties were to some extent determined by the domestic political processes of the two countries. Republicans aside, some Democrats also demanded the newly elected president not sign a nuclear deal with Iran unless additional conditions were incorporated and new elements introduced into the 2015 agreement.
On March 25, 43 Democrat and Republican senators, led by Democrat Bob Menendez and Republican Lindsey Graham, wrote a letter to President Biden urging the United States not to join the old treaty and instead sign a new, broader agreement. Even though this was a public appeal by senators to the President in the form of a request, in terms of negotiations, it somewhat strengthened the positions of those American diplomats.
In Iran, the presidential elections are scheduled for June 18, 2021, and the chances are high that the so-called “Hawks” wing will prevail, meaning the relatively moderate team of President Rouhani does not have much time left to succeed in the negotiations: the deadline for allowing the UN inspectors into the facilities expires on May 22.
Indirect talks began in Vienna on 6 April. The US and Iranian delegations are staying in hotels a mere hundred meters apart in the Austrian capital, and the “walking diplomacy,” that is, the mediation between them, is being carried out by British, French and German negotiators led by the EU.
Although both sides welcomed the initiation and progress of the talks, both US and Iranian officials state that “much remains to be done.” Working groups have been set up to work on both lifting / easing sanctions on Iran, and returning to the levels previously agreed. Clearly, both parties are demanding that the other fulfill its obligations first. The negotiations might succeed with both sides taking steps simultaneously, but the situation is not so simple.
The fact of the matter is that Iran has installed centrifuges with a much larger capacity in recent years, and has reached such a pace of uranium enrichment that it will be virtually impossible to return to the level of 3.67% agreed in 2015. Despite the Iranian president’s statement that “it will not take long to return to the old levels. One just has to fasten some bolts somewhere and unscrew elsewhere,” according to Rafael Gross, Secretary General of the International Atomic Energy Agency “it is impossible to declare the return to the original position because it no longer exists”.
Similar issues apply in terms of lifting/easing sanctions. Iran, of course, first of all demands the release of Iranian financial assets “frozen” by US sanctions in European banks, and the lifting of the international embargo on oil trade. The list of sanctions imposed on a number of Iranian state and commercial organizations, officials, and individuals also needs to be reviewed.
Added to this is the fact that an attack was carried out on the Natanz nuclear facility a few days after the start of the negotiations. Iran blamed Israel for it (as well as the assassination of an Iranian physicist), and just days later, the Iranian government decided to increase uranium enrichment up to 60%. According to Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, “1,000 new centrifuges will be installed in Natanz, making it 50% more powerful, and these will replace the centrifuges damaged in the attack”.
In addition to being a response to the attack, this declaration followed the EU decision to impose visa and financial sanctions on eight Iranian military officials in response to the 2019 crackdown on protests. Of course, another party to the agreement, Russia, has strongly criticized the EU decision. The decision of the Iranian government can be perceived as an attempt to disrupt the talks. However, official Washington has so far refrained from harsh assessments and is preparing for the next round.
If anyone really wants to disrupt these negotiations, it is, first and foremost, Israel, and its government openly says so. Clearly, it is avoiding a further “cooling” of the already chilly relationship with its main strategic ally, the new US administration (the Trump-Netanyahu era is history and the quality of relations has clearly changed under the new president), but official Jerusalem is openly discontent with the return of the USA to the Nuclear Deal and spares no diplomatic effort to either terminate or at least delay it. And with this aim, Israel not only makes statements and negotiates, but also acts. Though Israel does not validate its participation, it is considered to be the first suspect behind the attack on the Iranian physicist, as well as on the Natanz nuclear facility.
In all likelihood, in the end, an agreement will be reached. But it is still too early to perceive under what conditions and with whose victory the negotiations will end. How safe this agreement will make the region and the world in general is a matter for another discussion and merits a separate blog.