Iran nuclear talks: From a full deal to an interim one?

Osama al sharif
The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. (File photo: Jordan News)
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors began a weeklong meeting in Vienna on Monday. The meeting is expected to censure Iran for failing to answer questions regarding suspected undeclared nuclear sites and activities, which have raised concerns that the Islamic republic’s stockpiles of enriched uranium had reached critical levels.اضافة اعلان

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has warned that his country will not hesitate to take immediate action if the UN nuclear watchdog rebukes his country. The already stalled nuclear talks now face the prospect of total collapse if either party decides to take the matter to the brink.

Certainly, the mood is gloomy, especially since the talks have been suspended for over a month now, with several officials casting doubts over an imminent deal. US negotiator Robert Malley said last week that the prospects of a return to the Iran nuclear deal are “tenuous at best”, but added that the Biden administration still believes it is in the national security interest of the US to try to salvage the 2015 agreement.  

Top EU diplomat Josep Borrell said that the possibility of striking a deal and returning to the JCPOA is shrinking. The Russian envoy to the Vienna talks was also not optimistic. But even as parties mull an alternative to reaching a deal, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told the head of the IAEA in Israel last week that while Israel still prefers diplomacy, it reserves the right to self-defense and take action against Iran to block its nuclear program. He urged the UN watchdog’s board of governors to take action against Iran in their meeting this week.

In recent weeks, Israel has carried out war games to simulate launching massive air strikes against Iranian targets. Israeli officials have been engaging their American counterparts over available options if the nuclear deal with Iran falls through.

But, despite all the tension and pessimism hovering over Vienna and Tehran, diplomacy seems to be the only realistic conclusion to over a year of negotiations. In fact, those close to the talks confirmed that the parties have agreed on all relevant technical details to revive the agreement. What is standing in the way are two main conditions that Tehran has been insisting on: the removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the US terrorist list and a guarantee that the US will not walk from the deal in the future.
An uncalculated military adventure is too risky even for a maverick premier seeking to salvage his political career. The US is definitely not in the mood to take its eyes off Russia in Ukraine by waging a new war in the Middle East.
President Joe Biden is unwilling to approve the first and unable to sanction the second.

The removal of the IRGC from America’s terror list will further divide Congress. The Republicans are already opposed to reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. On the other hand, Israel has made it clear that it will not tolerate giving the IRGC a free pass. As to the second condition, Biden cannot assure that his successor will honor the deal. The nuclear agreement is not a treaty that Congress must approve — not that it will be adopted if it ever gets to the floor.

While Iran has insisted on the two conditions, diplomats have been trying to find a way out. One suggestion that seems to be gaining support is to conclude an interim deal that would return Iran to the deal, allow for full IAEA inspection, and remove US oil sanctions and others related to nuclear activities while keeping Iran’s two conditions on hold — for now.

The need for a deal has become more urgent for all parties, especially in light of the Russian war in Ukraine. The US and Europe want to free Iranian oil in a bid to calm the energy markets and bring prices down. That is a must for Biden and the Democrats as they prepare for the November midterm elections, where gas prices will play a pivotal role. For Europe, Iranian oil should alleviate the shortages resulting from boycotting Russian oil. For cash-strapped Iran, this would help it address domestic protests against inflation and deteriorating public services.

The war in Ukraine has changed the dynamics of the Vienna talks for all, including Israel. Bennett’s coalition government is on shaky grounds and may collapse at any moment. An uncalculated military adventure is too risky even for a maverick premier seeking to salvage his political career. The US is definitely not in the mood to take its eyes off Russia in Ukraine by waging a new war in the Middle East.

As for Russia, while releasing Iranian oil in the international markets will do harm, the Kremlin may be looking at the larger picture where a strong and stable Iran can play a more active role in supporting Vladimir Putin’s anti-western alliance. Moscow does not want to appear as the party preventing Tehran from breaking free from biting US sanctions.

So, regardless of what the IAEA meeting will do about censuring Iran, and despite all the pessimism, a deal may still be rescued in the coming weeks. An “interim agreement” will save face and give each party what it wants.

The leaders can always go back to their constituents and say that as an interim deal, they can always back off. Despite all the rhetoric, no one really wants to ignite another war.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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