Iranian nuclear talks at risk of stalling

Iranian nuclear talks at risk of stalling
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

The United States and Iran have been negotiating a new Iranian nuclear deal for months, but the odds of success remain slight. Failure could escalate tensions in the Middle East.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Indirect negotiations between the United States and Iran in Vienna have been stalled since March.
– Domestic constituencies in both nations will make any deal difficult to achieve as hardliners remain skeptical of an agreement.
– Failure to achieve a deal would lead to heightened tensions in the Middle East and increase the probability of military escalation.

A NUCLEAR DEAL APPEARS UNLIKELY

The United States and Iran have been negotiating indirectly for over a year in Vienna to reestablish the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but success seems elusive. Outwardly, both the United States and Iran are expressing optimism that a deal is still possible, but severe points of contention have arisen, threatening to derail the negotiations.

Chief among these sticking points is the Iranian demand that the US remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the list of designated terrorist organizations, and US refusal to do so. Iran insists that removal be a prerequisite for moving forward, while the US dismisses this demand as outside the confines of a nuclear deal. Sanctions relief is another point of contention, with Iran insisting the US lift sanctions before a deal is struck to show goodwill. The US has declined to do so.

Adding to the challenge, in recent weeks, Iran has removed at least 27 cameras operated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from its nuclear sites. IAEA chief Rafael Grossi warned that if the cameras remain disabled for a significant amount of time, a deal may become unattainable. Iran could move nuclear materials to unmonitored and undisclosed locations, making verification by the agency impossible.

DOMESTIC HARDLINERS INFLUENCE BOTH SIDES

Iranian pragmatists suffered a major setback when former US President Donald Trump pulled out of the JCPOA in 2018. This reality gave credence to the hardliner argument that the US was untrustworthy. It also discredited pragmatist reformers who lent their political capitol to the deal. As such, former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s willingness to strike a deal with the US looked foolish in the eyes of the Iranian electorate, the parliament and the supreme leader. Frustration at the deal’s failure and the reinstatement of sanctions sank pragmatist political fortunes.

Emboldened hardliners won back the Iranian presidency in 2021 with the election of Ebrahim Raisi. The new ultra-conservative, anti-Western president has been committed to maintaining the Iranian people’s “nuclear rights” in the face of what he views as Western aggression. Under his leadership, Iran has increased its stock of enriched uranium to 18 times what was allowed under the JCPOA, installed new centrifuges at its nuclear sites and undertaken construction to shield its facilities from an external military attack.

In the United States, reviving the deal has been just as contentious. The Republican Party has opposed the JCPOA from the outset and has criticized the agreement for its failure to rein in Iranian proxies and the eventual expiration of the agreed cap on enriched uranium. When Trump pulled out of the deal and reimposed full sanctions in 2018, Republicans supported him. However, domestic opposition to the deal in the US is not solely Republican.

A sizable number of Democrats in Congress have been critical as well. On May 4, as negotiations in Vienna stalled, the US Senate passed a nonbinding resolution demanding that any Iranian deal address the country’s ballistic missile program and its regional proxies. Sixteen Democrats approved the measure, indicating the blowback current President Joseph Biden could face from his own party if he strikes a deal viewed as favorable to Iran. Given Biden’s recent visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iranians are likely to pressure the US president to take a hard line with their regional foe.

A SHAKY PATH FORWARD

Despite the barriers to a deal, indirect talks between Iran and the US will likely continue off and on for the duration of Biden’s term. Neither side has much to gain from permanently ending talks, as Iran can continue to enrich uranium while engaging in diplomacy and the US can maintain its sanctions regimen. Although there is little potential for middle ground on issues such as the Revolutionary Guard and sanctions relief, neither state wants responsibility for the failure to renew the deal.

The Iranians would only intensify the international fury surrounding their nuclear program by ending negotiations. Biden campaigned on renewing and strengthening the JCPOA. If striking a deal favorable to Iran would lead to criticism even from some Democrats, declaring a return to a nuclear deal hopeless would be even less rewarding politically. Only a new US administration or a significant escalation in Iran’s nuclear program would likely bring negotiations to a halt.

Despite the likely persistence of negotiations, the talks are not likely to yield an agreement. Beyond the immediate issues of the Revolutionary Guard and sanctions relief, the US and Iran remain far apart in their ideas of an acceptable deal. Iran wants to return to the JCPOA as it was agreed to in 2015, including the expirations of key limitations including uranium enrichment. The US is advocating for a strengthened nuclear deal that does not include any sunset clauses—expiration dates for significant nuclear restrictions on Iran. Neither side is likely to budge, as the Iranians will not agree to a deal that permanently restricts their nuclear capacity and the US will not reenter a deal that allows Iran to produce weapons-grade uranium as soon as 2031.

While negotiations continue, both sides will pursue their policy goals through other means. For Iran, this will likely entail the continued hardening of its nuclear sites, expansion of its uranium enrichment capability and advancement of its ballistic missile program. Raisi is likely positioning Iran to be capable of producing a bomb in a short period of time. By simultaneously strengthening and securing their enrichment capacity and improving their ballistic missiles ,the Iranians will be able to hover at the very edge of a nuclear weapon. By resting in this position, they will likely attempt to extract concessions from the US and the broader international community without crossing a nuclear threshold that could prompt serious action. Yet, any concessions Raisi makes to the US with a potential deal would spark intense blowback from his supporters.

If the US declines to grant concessions such as sanctions relief, however, there is a real possibility that Iran could lose patience and conduct a nuclear test in the near future. The United States will likely continue its sanctions regime against Iran while working with Israel to keep military options alive, should Iran cross the nuclear threshold. Israel has stated repeatedly that it will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, but its strikes are unlikely to be entirely successful without US support.

In the event that Iran were to cross the nuclear threshold, it is likely the US would be willing to lend at least indirect support to potential Israeli military action, providing the necessary weaponry to penetrate Iran’s defenses. It is much less likely that the US would directly attack Iranian facilities, although if Iran had or was close to the capability to mount nuclear weapons on longer range missiles such a strike would become more likely. In the absence of a significant escalation such as a nuclear test, however, the US is most likely to maintain its sanctions regimen and continue ineffectual negotiations. Without a change in Iran’s leadership or an unexpected breakthrough, the most likely outcome remains an uncomfortable status quo persisting for the foreseeable future.

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