Nuclear negotiators in Vienna face struggle to resurrect Iran deal

As talks begin this week to refloat the nuclear restraint deal with Iran which was torpedoed three years ago by former president Donald Trump, it looks as if the attempted return to the status quo by the US and five other world powers is not going to happen.

The moribund 2015 accord, formally backed by France, Germany, the UK, China and Russia even after America’s unilateral withdrawal, seemed close to resurrection before the summer, after six rounds of talks in Vienna. Although Iran and the US liaise with each other only indirectly through the European signatories, there was real hope that the outline of the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — as the first deal was titled — was on the table.

It might have been, in its essentials. But outgoing pragmatists in Tehran could not possibly turn back a clock that Trump had ripped both hands off.

The wrong actors were assembling offstage in Tehran. Ebrahim Raisi, a prosecutor with a sanguinary record, replaced the pragmatic Hassan Rouhani as president in the summer elections. Raisi then appointed as foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, a diplomat with close to ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in place of Mohammad Javad Zarif — the silky face of Iranian diplomacy who had been co-architect, with Rouhani, of the JCPOA.

Yet ultimate power has always rested with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, enforced by his IRGC praetorians, the judiciary and the panoply of non-elected theocratic guardians answerable only to him. So it is not just a clean sweep by the hardliners that is responsible for the hardening of Iranian policy. It was Khamenei, after all, who gave his blessing to the 2015 breakthrough.

Instead, vested interests of the Islamic Republic — such as the IRGC, whose empire of businesses prosper precisely because Iran’s sanctioned and dislocated economy is largely closed, rather than open to the world as the JCPOA envisaged — always saw the 2015 deal as the slippery slope to regime change.

Indeed, sherpas who guided the nuclear diplomacy up the mountain to 2015 point out that the turning point came when the White House insisted it was not seeking the overthrow of the Tehran regime.

There were hopes the appointment as foreign minister of Amirabdollahian, a man with lines into Iran’s deep state, unlike his predecessor Zarif, would make returning to a nuclear deal more feasible.

Yet the hardliners not only loathed the idea of a more open economy and society integrating with the world. They — and Iranians across the spectrum — came to see the 2015 accord as a swindle.

Even before Trump tore up the deal and reimposed sanctions intended to strangle Iran’s economy, the US Treasury under former president Barack Obama used an array of non-nuclear sanctions that in effect kept Iran out of the dollar system and cut it off from international banking, deterring trade and investment.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, laid out his position unequivocally in the Financial Times last week. The US must lift all post-JCPOA economic sanctions forthwith as the prelude to re-entering an accord it unilaterally abandoned. Tehran correctly says it stuck to the letter of the JCPOA for a year after the US left. The ball is therefore in Washington’s court before Tehran comes back into compliance. Well, up to a point.

Hundreds of measures imposed on Iran after 2018 relate to its non-nuclear activity, such as using Arab Shia militia proxies to wield power in the Levant and the Gulf, and the development and deployment of ballistic missile and drone weapons — such as those that devastated a Saudi Aramco oil hub in 2019. US sanctions on such activity continue under president Joe Biden, even if Iran considers him a softer touch. Talk in Washington of offering sanctions-lifting as a carrot to encourage Tehran are not on the same page as Bagheri’s demands.

A second Iranian requirement, that anything agreed now must be binding on future presidents, is undeliverable and disingenuous — even if Iran might crave certainty after its long, visceral animosity with the US.

Third, even if Iran goes back to 2015-level enriched uranium stockpiles and agrees to dial down the level of purity far below weapons grade, it has installed a new generation of centrifuges — in place of old ones hit by cyber attacks and sabotage, presumably from Israel and the US — and that can hardly be undone. The result of Trump’s vandalism is that whereas the JCPOA, which he called “the worst deal ever”, mothballed enough of Iran’s nuclear programme to place it a year or so from bomb capability, Tehran is now within months — some say weeks — of being able to create a weapon. The negotiators in Vienna are dealing with a different reality.

Source Link

Leave a Reply