Return to Iran nuclear deal remains an elusive prospect

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Nearly a year into President Biden’s term, a return to the Iran nuclear deal remains elusive — and a new cast of characters on Iran’s side of the table is driving a hard bargain.

The parties appeared to be on the cusp of a deal in June, before Raisi’s election paused the talks and lowered U.S. expectations for an agreement. More moderate Iranian officials were replaced by hardliners. Five months on, many factors seem to have stacked against any progress.

As in previous rounds of negotiations aimed at returning Iran and the United States to compliance with the accord — President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018 — the two key countries have not been meeting face to face. While Europeans inform the Americans, their diplomats are based in separate hotels.

Biden pledged on the campaign trail to revive the 2015 nuclear accord. However, relief from the Trump administration’s avalanche of sanctions has not come as fast as the Iranians hoped.

As negotiations resumed, White House press secretary Jen Psaki called a return to the deal “our best available option.” So far, however, the talks have been heavy on distrust.

Raisi told French President Emmanuel Macron last week that “sending a comprehensive team to the negotiations shows the serious will of Iran in these negotiations.” But his chief negotiator, Ali Bagheri, who once called the nuclear agreement “a sick child,” said everything negotiated during the six rounds of talks between April and June was open for discussion.

After several days, Iran presented European powers with revised drafts on sanctions removal and nuclear commitments. Bagheri stated a series of extreme demands. These included the removal of all Trump sanctions immediately and an assurance that no other administration would withdraw from any deal in the future.

The United States does not wish to remove sanctions related to Iran’s proxy wars in the region and other issues. Biden cannot promise that any future administration will not undo the agreement. European diplomats have warned that unless Tehran changes course quickly, negotiations were headed for collapse.

Meanwhile, Iran continues to make nuclear advances. The country insists its nuclear program is peaceful, but it now enriches uranium up to 60 percent purity — inching toward the weapons-grade level of 90 percent. Raisi’s government refused to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor access to important sites.

The Biden administration estimates that the Iranian program’s “breakout” time for producing enough fissile material for one bomb has shrunk to less than a month, my colleague Karen DeYoung reported.

“The new Iranian team believes time is on their side and they’re using it to advance their nuclear program and build up bargaining chips,” Suzanne DiMaggio, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Today’s WorldView.

The IAEA reported last week that Iran had started the process of enriching uranium to up to 20 percent purity using more advanced centrifuges at its underground Fordow facility. The 2015 deal banned enrichment at the site.

Israel, for its part, is trying to scuttle the talks. The country, which considers Iran its archenemy, is lobbying the United States to abandon discussions.

In a call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett accused Iran of carrying out “nuclear blackmail” as a negotiation tactic.

On Tuesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called on major powers to reinforce sanctions and present “a credible military threat” to deter Iranian nuclear advances. The hawkish rhetoric comes amid an escalating cyber war between Israel and Iran.

China could also pose a major challenge, as Tehran orients its foreign policy toward east Asia.

A signatory of the 2015 nuclear deal, with genuine interest in keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, China sent a delegation to Vienna last week. But it has also bolstered its ties with Iran in recent years, becoming a leading importer of its oil and entering into a major economic cooperation deal. Even if there is no deal, this relationship can continue to grow.

For China, a nuclear-armed Iran may not present quite as ominous a prospect as it does for Israel or Western powers. In the absence of an agreement, rising tensions could discourage cooperation in sanctions.

“If these talks break down, it will be very tough to get some of the other parties to agree to reimpose or continue with the sanctions — especially Beijing,” DiMaggio said.

Bagheri has dismissed suggestions that Iran would consider an interim deal or a more far-reaching agreement to supplant the 2015 accord.

“The team at the helm today in Iran are ultra-hardliners who are more comfortable with escalation and their assessment that they can outlive any potential ‘Plan-B’ pressure track by the Biden administration,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow who focuses on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Hill newspaper.

U.S. concessions to Iran could embolden the Raisi government to demand more, while costing Biden politically. DiMaggio stated that she believes a rollback some of the non-nuclear sanctions is the best way to reach a deal.

If the talks collapse, the threat of a military escalation will grow. U.S. strikes against Iranian nuclear targets may temporarily halt the Iranian nuclear program, but give Tehran an advantage in public relations, according to Ali Vaez (International Crisis Group’s Iran project Director). U.S. support of any Israeli military action can embroil America in a wider conflict that could involve Iranian proxy forces in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.

In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the American public has little appetite for military engagement. A conflict with Iran could distract the Biden administration from its priority to compete with China.

“This is a worst-case scenario for the Biden administration,” Vaez said, “because if you have an Iran that is on the verge of nuclear weaponization and you have a significant escalation in Iraq and Syria, and once again you have Americans dying in those theaters, you basically end up in a situation where there is corridor of chaos stretching all the way from the borders of Afghanistan to the borders of Israel.”

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