On Monday, November 29, 2021 the five powers (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia) and Iran assembled in Vienna, Austria to resume talks on returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) after a five-month gap. Iran broke those talks in June, 2021. In Vienna, President Joe Biden’s special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, will not be sitting with the six negotiating delegations, but will be staying at a nearby hotel. He will be briefed on the talks by the diplomats from the five participating powers.
The states engaged in the negotiations have their own agendas. For Iran, their single objective is to lift the sanctions. From statements made by Iranian leaders, it is clear that they will object to dealing with issues of concern to the US, or the Israelis, who are not participants, but are facing an existential threat from a nuclear Iran. These issues include Iran’s development of ballistic missiles, and their nefarious regional activities. Iran demands assurances that the new JCPOA will bind future US administrations. It is not easy to predict whether the Iranian negotiating team will stick to its maximalist demands, or show some flexibility. It is clear, however, that Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, will seek a tough stand against the US. With the Chinese and Russian delegations at Iran’s side both in and out of the negotiation room, Tehran is unlikely to budge.
The first day of the negotiations is perhaps indicative of what is to come. The Iranian top negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, dictated the agenda, and the western powers dutifully complied. The topic was the lifting of the sanctions against Iran, and not returning the Islamic Republic to its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA. Another early piece of evidence of Iran’s dictating the agenda came from Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh. He stated that, “The US could receive a ticket for returning to the room if it agrees to the real lifting of sanctions.” The arrogance of the Iranians is apparent, and meant as an insult to the US.
Ali Waez, Project Director Iran, and senior adviser to the US President, twitted (October 15, 2021) that, “Closing the gap between P5+1 could also shift the calculus. Tehran believes, not without some justification, that daylight between the West and China in particular gives it breathing room, economically and diplomatically.”
The US seeks to bring Iran back to compliance, which is the return to the previous levels of uranium enrichment set at the 2015 nuclear deal. The Iranians are currently enriching uranium at a high level of 60%; a 90% uranium purity is needed for a weapons-grade level. It is clear that the Iranians used the almost six-month hiatus to upgrade its centrifuges, and increase the level of uranium enrichment in full violation of the JCPOA provisions. The signals from Washington are that the Biden administration supposedly will not countenance Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb. The Biden administration has warned that the US has “other options,” but, the betting money should be on the US caving in. The Biden administration is more than likely to accept a deal that leaves the radical Ayatollahs in Tehran with a nuclear bomb on their shelf. The Iranians are putting their money on Biden’s unwillingness to engage in another war in the Middle East.
The Gulf States who, like Israel, are threatened by a nuclear Iran, are equally disturbed by Iran’s terror sponsoring activities. Still, they have changed their minds about the JCPOA, and seem to have concluded that an imperfect deal is better than no deal. They apparently believe that the “maximum pressure” on Iran made the Ayatollah regime more aggressive in the region. They also reason that the US focus on China leaves them more vulnerable to Iran.
Enrique Mora, of the European Union (EU), who is chairing the talks in Vienna, pointed out that, “Iran recognizes the work done in the past six rounds of talks and the fact that we will be building on that.” But the European appeasers seem to deny reality, given the fact that the Iranians appear to dictate the talks. The three European states, Britain, France, and Germany, are aligned with the US on the approach that the talks must begin where they left off in June. Like the Americans, the Europeans have maintained that they want to see a speedy return to nuclear compliance by Iran.
While both China and Russia want to see the reconstitution of the JCPOA, their agenda is based on weakening the US, or perhaps replacing its influence in the Middle East. Both the Chinese and the Russians have maintained a strong trade relationship with Iran, in spite of the UN imposed sanctions. Nevertheless, the UN arms embargo on Iran was lifted in October, 2020, with Russia and China more than happy to fill Iran’s purchasing orders. In September, 2021 Iran joined the Shanghai Cooperation Council that grouped together China, Russia, Pakistan, and India, as well as some central Asian states.
Jerusalem is naturally concerned about the Vienna talks, and Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid flew to London for talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and to Paris, where he met with President Macron. He made the case that Iran is back to Vienna for one reason, and that is to lift the sanctions. They need the money from sanctions relief to arm Hezbollah, for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), to fund their global terrorist network, as well as to continue their race toward a nuclear bomb.
Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett declared that, “Israel preserves its freedom of action,” and added, “Israel is not a party to the JCPOA and it is not bound by it.” The day the Vienna talks resumed Bennett asserted that Iran is seeking “to end the sanctions in exchange for almost nothing…Iran deserves no rewards, no bargain deals, and no sanctions relief in return for their brutality.” He called upon Israel’s allies around the world “not to give in to Iran’s nuclear blackmail.” Benny Gantz, Israel’s Defense Minister, is more reliant on the US. He is of the opinion that Israel’s security is better served by cooperating with Washington in spite of the likely American ‘soft’ handling of Iran in the nuclear talks.
The collective fear in Jerusalem is that the inability to reach an agreement with Iran would lead the US to settle for a partial agreement that would remove most of the sanctions, including the sale of oil, in return for a temporary limitation on Iranian uranium enrichment. The Iranians though, might already qualify as a ‘threshold’ nuclear state, in which case, the negotiations in Vienna are pointless.
For Jerusalem, Iran becoming a ‘threshold’ nuclear state is a scary scenario. Adding to that anxiety are the billions in revenue Iran will get from oil exporting. It will enable Iran to develop hegemonic strategies for control of the Middle East. It would fund the advancement of its nuclear program, and the fortification of its nuclear facilities against an attack. It would support the development and production of more accurate, longer-range ballistic missiles, and weaponized drones. The oil revenues would also enable Iran to increase funding for its proxy Shiite militias, and the Lebanese terrorist Hezbollah in particular.
Finally, the mere dealing with the oppressive Ayatollah regime provides it more staying power, at a time when the Iranian people seek to rid themselves of this hated theocracy.