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Maximum fissures: Iran nuclear deal talks head toward oblivion

The Iranians are making unrealistic demands and blowing off the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog. The Israelis, once again, are threatening to bomb. And the Americans are warning that they’re willing to walk away.

As talks on restoring the Iran nuclear deal resume in Vienna on Monday, after a five-month hiatus, the mood among negotiators is somber if not outright gloomy, and the rhetoric has gone from tough to strident. Both Washington and Tehran appear willing to risk failure, and potentially much worse, to the chagrin of European and other countries shepherding the latest diplomacy.

In a sense, the world has been here before. As Iran advanced its nuclear program prior to the 2015 deal, much of the same brinkmanship was at play, including Israel’s insistence that it would use military force to destroy the Iranian program.

But the stakes are arguably higher now. Iran’s nuclear program — which Tehran has always maintained is for peaceful purposes, not a bomb — is more advanced, and Iranian leaders are less optimistic about the benefits of potential sanctions relief.

Just this past week, Iranian officials were unwilling to strike an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, a U.N. body, to restore some of its access to inspect Iranian nuclear sites — behavior that rang alarm bells in Europe and led to warnings from Washington, but did not result in a censure resolution against Iran as some regime critics had hoped.

The United States can’t count on unity among its partner states — or their trust — as much as it could when it first reached a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. U.S. relations with China have deteriorated in recent years, and ties with Russia are fraying as well. Besides, it was America, under then-President Donald Trump, that abandoned the agreement in the first place.

“It’s tough to look at the current situation and not have a fairly bleak outlook,” said Henry Rome, an Iran analyst with the Eurasia Group. “Expectations are extremely low for any progress.”

A senior Biden administration official insisted the U.S. objective is “not about brinksmanship and not about playing games,” but rather to disabuse Iran’s new negotiators of “false expectations” about what the United States will do to accommodate them.

The more things change

A few things have changed since Trump, while offering no substantial evidence of Iranian violations, quit the nuclear deal in 2018.

Joe Biden is now the U.S. president, and he has said he wants to restore the original deal and negotiate a longer-lasting one. Biden and his team, however, say they won’t lift sanctions Trump reimposed unless Iran returns to compliance with the agreement.

Iran, which began violating aspects of the 2015 deal a year after Trump left it, is increasing its stockpile of 60 percent-enriched uranium. The estimates for how long it would take Iran to build a nuclear bomb have fallen from a year under the 2015 deal to a few months, or even weeks.

Tehran was moving in that direction even before a new hardline government took over this summer. Since then, Iran has further hardened its negotiating position.

Iran is deemphasizing discussions on limiting its nuclear program, while demanding that the United States lift all sanctions — including those imposed by Trump — in a “verifiable manner.” That’s unlikely to happen, however, because many of the newer sanctions were officially unrelated to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Iranian officials have further called for Biden to guarantee the United States will not pull out of the agreement again if it is restored. But Biden is unlikely to be able to bind his successors in that way — and there is little likelihood any deal he strikes will meet with broad approval in a deeply divided Congress, where even some Democrats are skeptical of engaging the Iranians.

“I think it’s important to understand that the main goal of the new Iranian regime is to portray strength and intransigence,” a Western diplomat familiar with the nuclear negotiations told POLITICO. “Economic calculations currently don’t play such a big role.”

Is ‘Plan B’ already in play?

U.S. negotiators are pessimistic about any near-term success, according to current and former U.S. officials. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other American officials have warned that their patience is finite and that they’re not ruling out military action to derail Iran’s nuclear program.

“Every option is on the table,” Blinken said in late October.

Still, U.S. officials want to exhaust every effort to engage Tehran diplomatically. In part, that’s to show partner countries and the world that Washington — and not Iran — has the best intentions.

Even if both Iran and the United States conclude that restoring the original 2015 agreement is impossible, the Biden administration is unlikely to take continued diplomatic discussions off the table. That option also will likely remain if the United States ramps up sanctions or green-lights sabotage attempts against Iran’s program.

The basic outlines of a mutual return to the 2015 deal — often called the JCPOA, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — have not changed. The United States would have to lift an array of sanctions while Iran would have to rollback nearly all of its nuclear activities. The discussions in Vienna are indirect: European emissaries are conveying messages between Iranian and American negotiators.

In the meantime, there is some talk about proposing an interim agreement. That could take any number of shapes, including offering Iran some sanctions relief for a freeze or partial rollback of some of its nuclear moves.

The odds of that coming together, however, are low.

For one thing, Iranian officials are well aware that the major sanctions relief offered in 2015 had a more limited positive impact on their economy than they’d hoped. Foreign investment didn’t materialize to the extent Iran wanted in part because so many non-nuclear U.S. sanctions still remained in place, and because Iran’s economy has its own problems, including corruption.

Analysts say Iranian leaders may believe that pursuing more nuclear activity will give them more leverage at the bargaining table than agreeing to an interim deal whose economic relief might be minimal at best. In fact, China is already buying significant amounts of Iranian oil despite U.S. sanctions — a sign of discord among once-united world powers on what to do about Iran’s nuclear plans.

The partisan divides within the United States, exacerbated during the Trump years, don’t help. The polarized environment makes it harder for American negotiators to offer an interim deal or to appear as if they are offering any concessions to an Iranian regime making maximalist demands. Biden can’t afford to look like he is caving to Tehran.

The senior Biden administration official said the U.S. is not proactively pushing for an interim deal but acknowledged that it’s possible the option could come up, possibly at the behest of a third party.

“Our preference is to get back to the JCPOA, but it would be diplomatic malpractice if we were not open to alternatives,” the official said.

A former State Department official who deals with the Middle East said the Biden team appears to already be moving toward some version of a “Plan B,” in case the talks to restore the 2015 deal collapse.

There’s no broad consensus on what defines a Plan B. But it’s likely to involve the United States ramping up diplomatic and sanctions pressure on Iran and waiting out the hardline regime as it deals with a struggling economy.

The Iranian government, formally led by new President Ebrahim Raisi, appears to think it can manage despite the sanctions — building a “resistance economy.”

But if the United States can apply enough pressure the regime may over time decide it has to return to talks, the former State Department official said. That’s more likely to happen if the Iranian people stage protests over the hardships they face, the former official said. Just this past week, the Iranian government cracked down on a major protest over water shortages.

Such an envisioned scenario in some ways echoes the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” plan, with the caveat that the Biden team appears more serious about offering a diplomatic way out for Iran. Critics alleged that the Trump approach was more about sparking regime change in Tehran.

Recently, Biden’s special envoy for the Iran talks, Rob Malley, has been pushing Arab countries — some of whom opposed the 2015 deal — to back its restoration. He seems to have had some success: The Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes some of those resistant Arab countries, recently called on Iran to return to the deal.

It’s hard to say whether the United States will be able to convince China or Russia to raise the pressure on Tehran. But the diplomatic outreach to the Arab states suggests that Malley and his team are thinking past the current talks.

“That is Plan B. There’s not gonna be a moment where we announce Plan B and then shift. We’re already transitioning to Plan B,” said the former State Department official. If there’s no resurrecting the 2015 deal, “our objective needs to be to buy time, stretch this out, let the Iranians marinate in this.”

Analysts say that could include the United States engaging in various types of efforts, including cyber or more upfront military actions, to damage Iran’s nuclear program. It could also mean helping or looking the other way if Israel decides to carry out similar steps as it has in the past.

Israel views Iran as a top adversary and a nuclear Iran as an existential threat. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recently said that even if the 2015 agreement is restored, his country will not feel bound by it.

“We will maintain the freedom to act,” Bennett said.

Stonewalling the inspectors

While Trump’s decision to leave the Iran deal in 2018 infuriated Germany, France, Britain and other countries who helped piece the agreement together, Iran’s recent defiance of international IAEA inspectors is eroding any sympathy it may have gained.

For the past two months, Iran has been blocking U.N. inspectors from accessing an assembly plant in Karaj, a city west of Tehran, that produces parts for advanced centrifuges, machines used to enrich uranium. The more advanced centrifuges Iran has operating, the faster the country will be able to develop a nuclear weapon, if it decides to do so.

Under the JCPOA, Iran was only allowed to produce enriched uranium with a limited number of its first-generation IR-1 centrifuges at the underground Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant. Currently, Iran, however, has installed hundreds of advanced centrifuges that are much more efficient and powerful at both of its main plants in Fordow and Natanz, in a clear breach of the nuclear deal.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said his last-minute talks on inspector access with high-level Iranian officials in Tehran on Tuesday proved “inconclusive.”

He also warned that time was running out for his inspectors to get access to the site in order to replace cameras that were damaged or broken during an alleged act of sabotage in June. Without the equipment being serviced and replaced soon, Grossi said he would not be able to guarantee “continuity of knowledge” about activities at this location. He also said that his inspectors needed to verify whether centrifuge production had resumed at the site.

But Tehran continues to obstruct access, arguing it is still investigating the June incident, which it blames on Israel.

At a meeting of the 35-member IAEA Board of Governors this week in Vienna, France, Germany and the United Kingdom jointly called on Iran to “urgently restore” IAEA access to the Karaj site.

Despite Iran’s continuous lack of cooperation, the IAEA Board of Governors avoided passing a censure resolution against Iran this past week, in an attempt not to jeopardize the nuclear talks.

But the United States took the opportunity to issue a stark warning, saying that if Iran continues to refuse access, the IAEA Board “will have no choice but to reconvene in extraordinary session before the end of this year in order to address the crisis.” With this statement, Washington hinted at the fact that it will be prepared to support the passage of a censure resolution that could refer Iran back to the U.N. Security Council for more sanctions.

Grossi also told IAEA member states that since April, his inspectors have repeatedly experienced “excessively invasive physical searches” during security checks in Iran, adding that this resulted in them feeling “intimidated.”

Iran continues to stonewall the IAEA’s requests to explain the presence of decades-old nuclear material found at four locations in the country — a request that has remained unanswered for more than two years. In his most recent report, Grossi told member states that this lack of an explanation by Iran “seriously affects the Agency’s ability to provide assurances of the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.”

Meanwhile, in Vienna, where the talks are set to resume, Iranian officials have caused headaches for Austrian authorities.

Iran has asked Austria to ensure that the negotiations will face limited disruption by protests held by Iranian dissidents and critics of the nuclear deal, officials say.

During the past six rounds of talks in the Austrian capital between April and June, the Iranian negotiating team complained about the noise by nearby protesters. At the time, the talks were being held at the Grand Hotel on the historical Ringstrasse.

Austrian police ordered a ban on protests in the immediate vicinity of the hotel in June, but they continued to allow demonstrators to gather at an alternative location. An Austrian court, however, recently suspended the police-ordered ban.

That’s likely why Austrian authorities decided to move the talks to the Palais Coburg, the original venue where the Iran nuclear deal was concluded in 2015. There is more space in front of the luxury Coburg hotel, which makes it easier to protect the venue and to contain potential disruptions.

But even if the Palais Coburg brings back positive memories of the successful conclusion of the landmark 2015 deal, confidence currently seems very low on either side that a breakthrough can be achieved.

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