In Vienna, an 11th hour round of nuclear talks?

Osama al sharif
(Photo: Jordan News)
As negotiations resume in Vienna this week, there is a growing feeling that while the eighth round of nuclear talks may happen at the 11th hour, signaling either a light at the end of the tunnel or an eventual collapse, there may still be a chance that the two sides are closer than they have ever been to reaching a deal. اضافة اعلان

While the US and its European partners expressed disappointment at the end of the last round a few weeks ago, the Iranians sent positive messages.
They reached an important deal with the international nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, to install new cameras at a centrifuge parts manufacturing facility in Karaj to replace cameras that were damaged or destroyed when the site was targeted by a sabotage attack, believed to have been waged by Israel, in June this year.

And a few days before this week’s resumption, the head of Iran’s nuclear body, Mohammad Islami, announced that his country will not exceed the 60 percent uranium enrichment levels, which, he claimed, is needed for industrial use. He stressed that Iran’s nuclear activities are all within the framework of the IAEA and his country’s international commitments.

These may be small gestures, but taken in contrast to the progress, or lack of it, that was achieved this year, it could prove important. 

For Iran, there are two main issues, and they have been the same since the US withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018: The lifting of all sanctions immediately and unconditionally; and firm assurances that the US will not pull out of the deal in the future. 

The second condition is a major hurdle: President Joe Biden cannot make such a pledge and his successor, especially if he or she is a Trump surrogate, can once more walk away from the deal unless it is ratified by Congress, something that is unlikely to happen with a deeply polarized legislature. This particular conundrum could make any new agreement short lived.

On the technical side, the talks have made progress, indeed. The provisions of the 2015 deal are well documented and Iran knows too well the boundaries and limitations of its “peaceful” nuclear activities. In fact, it claims, and some experts may vouch for it, that even as it raises the level of its uranium enrichments and number of centrifuges, it remains within the original deal. It says that it is the US, a main signatory to the agreement, which has violated its terms unilaterally and it is the US that needs to rejoin it.

It is on the political side that things are more complicated. First, there are non-nuclear related sanctions that have been slapped on Tehran at one stage or another, that relate to human rights violations, ballistic missiles programs and drone attacks. Iran wants all sanctions removed, but the US, along with European and Gulf partners, wants to extract concessions from Tehran regarding such non-nuclear activities. Iran has supplied its Houthi allies in Yemen with ballistic missiles and drones that have been used to attack non-military targets in Saudi Arabia.

In fact, Iran’s ballistic missile and drone technology is being seen as a game changer in the region. Its proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are believed to have access to such weapons now, a source of great concern to many parties, including Israel.

For Iran’s radical leaders, the issue in non-negotiable and is seen as a major deterrence against threats to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, especially by Israel. As things stand now, the US is unlikely to cave in to pressure to lift all sanctions immediately.

But then comes a statement by Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian who, on the eve of the resumption of Vienna talks said that Iran’s main focus in nuclear talks will be the lifting of all US sanctions in a verifiable process that guarantees Tehran’s unhindered ability to export its oil.
“The most important issue for us is to reach a point where, firstly, Iranian oil can be sold easily and without hindrance,” he said, adding that “the money from the oil (sales) is to be deposited as foreign currency in Iranian banks – so we can enjoy all the economic benefits stipulated in Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.”

Iran’s economic troubles are mounting and time is not on its side. It wants the immediate lifting of sanctions that are preventing it from selling its oil in the open market. This could be a sign that Tehran is willing to accept a first phase of lifting of sanctions that is related directly to its oil exports.

The US will not be dragged into a war — not now and not when Biden is facing domestic challenges that could diminish his party’s chances at next year’s crucial midterm elections. The sooner he can get the Iran issue out of the way the easier it will be for his administration to focus on preparing for difficult congressional and gubernatorial elections. That is not good news for Israel, which is against any deal with Iran, no matter the terms.

Iran and Israel exchanged strong messages the past few weeks, and both held military exercises aimed at intimidating the other.
Despite Israel’s saber rattling, the cost of a unilateral pre-emptive strike will be hefty and unpredictable in its outcome. US National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan did not mention a military option when he visited Israel last week to discuss the nuclear talks. His unspoken message may have been “do not count us in”, and Israel seems to have understood it well. Maybe that is why Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid came out later to say that Israel would have no problem if the US entered a strong nuclear deal with Iran that would permanently limit its ability to assemble a nuclear weapon.
The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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