Moment of truth is coming for Iran nuclear deal
However one looks at the current diplomatic maneuvers between Tehran and the international community over Iran’s nuclear program, it is evident that they are edging closer to crunch time, forcing all sides to reveal their cards.
One aspect essential to any negotiations but completely missing in those with Iran, and more specifically over America’s return to the JCPOA, is mutual trust. Without it, not only will it be almost impossible to reach an agreement, but even if one is concluded the sides will remain suspicious of each other’s true intentions and whether they will abide by the terms of the agreement. However, to avoid further confrontation, including a military one, a verifiable agreement with clear penalties for breaching it is essential to end the cat-and-mouse game played by Tehran when it comes to inspections of its nuclear sites, let alone prevent it acquiring material that will enable it to become a nuclear military power.
A contributory factor to the current impasse is the lack of coherent policies with clearly set priorities — both on both Iran’s side, and also on the part of those who are trying not just to prevent it acquiring nuclear military capability, but also to stop its destabilising policies elsewhere. For Iran the nuclear issue is as much about regional hegemony and prestige as it is a feature in its complex domestic politics. For those who wish to contain Tehran’s ambitions, there is confusion between the emerging danger of a militarily nuclearized Iran with all its implications and complications, including a nuclear arms race in the region, and halting the country’s more conventional aggressive activities in the region, whether these relate to Yemen, Syria, Lebanon or the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Although there is an obvious connection between Iran’s involvement in subversion in different parts of the region and its nuclear ambitions, each issue requires at times different strategies, ranging from diplomatic negotiations to tangible pressure to gain the necessary impact.
In a last-ditch attempt to avoid escalation, Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, rushed to Tehran for a meeting with the head of the Iranian atomic energy association, Mohammad Eslami. Following this meeting Iran agreed to permit IAEA inspectors to service the agency’s surveillance equipment, which it barred this year. This will improve the monitoring of Iran’s enrichment activities, though Iran has previously managed to deceive the inspection system. Tehran has already admitted that its Natanz plant it has enriched uranium to much higher purity than the 2015 deal allows. Add to this a report this month by the IAEA which revealed that Iran was also working on enriched uranium metal that can be used to make the core of a nuclear bomb, and it is no surprise that the alarm was raised among the European countries of the P5+1 and in Washington. Based on the data available from the IAEA report, analysts concluded that Iran was a month away from having enough material to produce a single nuclear weapon, although assembling a nuclear warhead was still months away, possibly even years.
The agreement that enables renewed inspections has spared Iran, at least for now, from further condemnation by the UN Security Council and from further action by European powers and the US. But the message from Washington is that the window for negotiations is closing. On a visit to Germany this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “I’m not going to put a date on it but we are getting closer to the point at which strict compliance with the JCPOA does not reproduce the benefits the agreement achieved … we are not there yet.”Regardless of how flawed the decision by the Trump administration was to withdraw unilaterally from the JCPOA in 2018, thus handing Tehran an excuse to accelerate its nuclear program, that decision has become an irrelevance in its dealings with the Biden administration. Tehran continues to protest its innocence, claiming that its nuclear program is peaceful, but few take this claim at face value. Iran has no reason to invest a vast amount of resources and clash with the international community, let alone be on the receiving end of severe sanctions that have stifled its economy, unless it has nuclear military ambitions.
Iran may discover that, unlike the more divided international approach when it comes to other aspects of its adventurism, its nuclear program could unite large parts of the international community in a desire to ensure that it is truly a non-military one.
The game Iran is playing is a high stakes one that it can hardly afford, but it is caught up in its own domestic intricacies, made even less pragmatic by the election of President Ebrahim Raisi, with his hegemonical ambitions. The bravado of refusing to negotiate directly with Washington until all sanctions are lifted, and further claiming that it was the US that violated the agreement, may serve the Iranian leadership well among its domestic audience, but only further stretches the patience of the US, Europe, the GCC countries and Israel, all of whom are operating on the working assumption that Iran is deliberately running down the clock until it has crossed the threshold of being able to assemble a nuclear weapon, and feel obliged to mount further pressure on Tehran to prevent this from happening.
Nevertheless, the least likely scenario is military action, even limited, against Iran. With the Trump-Netanyahu, populist-provocative brand of politics now removed from the center of power, the language of military force has become more subdued. Israel is still insisting that it has a military option, as was hinted at last week by its Defense Minister Benny Gantz. However, despite having held to this position for nearly 20 years, its modus operandi has remained that of slowing down Iran’s nuclear program by means of clandestine operations and encouraging diplomatic pressure and sanctions.
There is no reason to believe that this pattern of diplomacy, accompanied by covert operations, cyberwarfare and threats of sanctions and military action won’t continue, but with more intensity as the timeline becomes tighter. This may unite and invite the international community, including perhaps China, even Russia, to ratchet up their diplomatic and economic pressure on Tehran. Iran may discover that, unlike the more divided international approach when it comes to other aspects of its adventurism, its nuclear program could unite large parts of the international community in a desire to ensure that it is truly a non-military one.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg