In 2015, after 10 years of grueling negotiations between the US, Russia, UK, France, China, Germany and Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was concluded, providing significant restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
In May 2018, then-US President Donald Trump decided to unilaterally withdraw from the deal and reinstate harsh sanctions against Tehran.
In response, Iran announced that it would reduce its compliance with commitments under the agreement, particularly those pertaining to nuclear research and uranium enrichment levels.
US President Joe Biden’s recognition of the need to revive the nuclear deal with Iran has led to new negotiations in Vienna, which began in the spring involving all parties to the JCPOA.
The seventh round of these talks, with a new team of two Iranian negotiators appointed by Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s new radical president, came to an end in early December with no tangible results.
Fifteen years ago, out of the realization that the Iranian threat would soon become a threat to global stability, I established a forum of world experts on nuclear non-proliferation and arms control. The International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe, the largest expert institution of that kind, monitors and analyzes developments and provides recommendations to decision-makers of how to deal with the situation seriously.
The following attributes illustrate the situation in Iran and the positions of the negotiators in Vienna to date.
The new radical Iranian president replaced the leadership of Iran’s nuclear program, the team of nuclear negotiators, and also changed ‘ideological foundation’ of the negotiations.
Thus, Brigadier-General Hossein Tayeb, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ intelligence service, was appointed head of Iran’s entire nuclear program to replace nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was killed.
The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran is now headed by another ‘hawk,’ incumbent Vice President Mohammad Eslami.
Ali Bagheri Kani, a former secret service officer known for his tough stance on the negotiations, was appointed head of the Iranian negotiating team for the JCPOA.
All the personnel decisions in Iran appear to favor individuals from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and other security agencies. Iran demands that the US admit guilt for the collapse of the JCPOA, lift all its sanctions at once, and give official guarantees that no future administration will withdraw from the JCPOA, should the negotiations succeed.
The Luxembourg Forum’s experts have counted more than 1,500 US sanctions since the 1970s.
Iran’s main demand is to terminate all US financial and economic sanctions. They demand that this should be followed by a long period of verification of the lifting of sanctions, and only then by a decision of the Iranian government to resume compliance with the JCPOA requirements.
However, it is clear that Iran has successfully played for time to increase its leverage, and while negotiations are ongoing the centrifuges keep spinning.
According to the IAEA quarterly report, Iran’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium quadrupled over just four months last year. In May, Iran possessed 2.4 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60%, and in September it reportedly had 10k of such uranium.
The current stockpile of 60% enriched uranium is already 25 kilograms, while stocks of uranium enriched up to 20% have reached more than 210 kilograms, which is well above the JCPOA limit of 120 kilograms.
Based on the latest IAEA reports, a group of experts at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) concluded in September that in about a month Iran will have produced enough enriched uranium to build the first atomic bomb, the second will take about three months to produce, while the third could be manufactured in less than five months. Hopes for diplomatic solutions with a synchronized step-by-step lifting of sanctions and a return of Iran to JCPOA compliance stems from the country’s dire economic situation, primarily caused by US sanctions.
The economy steadily deteriorated in 2021.
In 2020, Iran’s GDP was $192 billion, 50th in international ranking. Per capita GDP was $13,993, 92nd of 190 countries, and even lower according to the IMF and World Bank. Annual inflation as of June was 47.6%, and food inflation for the same period was 62.7%. The unemployment rate in the third quarter of 2020 was 9.5%, and 23.1% among young people.
There are also other factors at play, including the process of nationalization of the economy; restrictive policies pursued by the authorities, which undermine private-sector growth and expansion; and ineffective management of the economy, because a significant number of highly qualified specialists are leaving the country. Iran is in first place among 91 developing countries for the so-called ‘brain drain,’ with 150,000 to 180,000 skilled and educated people emigrating every year, and top managers being replaced by former or active-duty generals and officers of the IRGC.
There is also a crisis of the banking system, which is isolated from the outside world and from SWIFT. Large-scale vertical and horizontal corruption. Iran ranks 149th out of 180 countries in the global corruption ranking. The corona pandemic shows Iran had the highest rates of illness and mortality in the Middle East last month. At the end of October, 126,000 deaths were recorded and 5.9 million people were infected, in a population of 82 million.
Shortages of water and electricity have led to problems in the economy, especially in the agricultural sector. Former Foreign Minister Zarif, while demanding compensation from the US for the ‘nuclear sanctions,’ claimed that the US sanctions had caused one trillion dollars’ worth of damage to the Iranian economy.
All of these economic and social factors could, to a certain extent, influence Iran’s policy on the revival of the nuclear deal. Israel’s position is that it’s time to enact tougher sanctions, which will lead to greater flexibility and more concessions by Iran. I call on the leaders of the P5+1 to support Israel’s position, to prevent nuclear escalation in the Middle East.
There is another global player that could influence the Vienna talks and move away from the red line: China. In recent years there has been a significant strengthening of relations between China and Iran. China’s key interest is to guarantee global energy supplies and prices, to which the Chinese economy is acutely sensitive.
China has a privileged relationship with the Iranian energy market and would benefit from the termination of sanctions. At the same time, Iran’s policy in Vienna and the future of the nuclear deal will depend on the balance of power between supporters of economic development without the pressure of sanctions, and supporters of an entirely self-reliant closed economy.
Both groups are radical, anti-Western, and anti-American, so negotiations with either of them would be tough in any case, with unpredictable outcomes. Raisi has an unequivocally tough stance on the West and believes economic sanctions to be a boon for his country, as he thinks they offer an opportunity to modernize and develop a self-reliant economy.
Regardless of the outcome of the JCPOA negotiations or the state of the country’s economy, Raisi’s priority plan is to rapidly accelerate space programs. He fired the head of the Iranian Space Agency, and while chairing a meeting of the Supreme Space Council, the country’s top space policy-making body, committed Iran to launch more satellites into low Earth orbit in the next year and to start deploying them on the geostationary orbit by 2026.
Iran has two space programs: the government program, and a parallel program run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The government space program is under the authority of the president of Iran. The Revolutionary Guard’s space program exists outside the government framework, and just as the Guard Corps itself, it reports directly to the Supreme Leader, managing and executing its own parallel efforts to develop launchers, satellites and ground facilities for military purposes.
The Corps operates its own parallel network of contractors, including research centers and a university. The steps taken in the first 100 days of Raisi’s presidency suggest that Iran’s attempts to make serious and rapid progress toward its outer space ambitions could yield visible results within the next year. An important difference between the two space programs is that the former is focusing on liquid-propellant launch vehicles, while the latter is developing solid-propellant launch vehicles, which makes them most suitable for building intercontinental ballistic missiles.
But such missiles will be effective only if they are equipped with nuclear warheads. All of these programs – nuclear, missile and space – multiply the military threats emanating from Iran both in and beyond the Middle East. First and foremost, for Israel, whose existence Tehran considers unacceptable, as well as for the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which are at enmity with Iran and with which Israel has established good neighborly relations.
In the fall, Saudi Arabia and Israel opened their airspace to each other. Against this backdrop, the Israeli prime minister told the UN General Assembly in September that “Iran’s nuclear program has hit a watershed moment, and so has our tolerance. Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning. We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.” At the same time, it was announced that the Israel Defense Forces were preparing fresh operational plans for a powerful military strike.
The US position in Vienna is well-known. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was ‘absolutely in lockstep’ with Britain, Germany and France on bringing Iran back to the nuclear deal, but added that it was unclear whether Tehran was willing to rejoin the talks “in a meaningful way.” During the seventh round of the Vienna talks, Blinken noted that “in the very near future, in the next day or so, we will be in a position to judge whether Iran actually intends now to engage in good faith.”
According to the secretary of state, it was not too late for Iran to reverse course and engage in constructive negotiations. “What Iran can’t do is sustain the status quo of building their nuclear program while dragging their feet on talks,” he said. “That will not happen.”
UK Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss warned the Iranian negotiators that it was their “last chance” to come to the negotiating table with constructive and realistic solutions. One thing not to overlook is that in the current environment, a number of prominent politicians and experts point to the divergence between US and Israeli positions on the choice of follow-up actions. Washington considers further tightening of sanctions to be expedient in case the negotiations in Vienna drag on, and while referring in general terms to alternatives, it does not elaborate on them.
One reason for not naming any radical options may be the American sense of responsibility for its previous administration’s flawed decision to terminate the JCPOA. However, the unfortunate law of history is already at play here too. The price of correcting mistakes grows exponentially, and it is always hard to pay. On the other hand, Israel has always believed that the JCPOA would not stop Iran from building nuclear weapons, and that radical solutions were needed.
This is understandable, because for many years the country has been essentially tied up and constantly repelling missile strikes and terrorist attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah fighters, who are armed by Iran, which considers the existence of a Jewish state unacceptable. Thus the current situation around the nuclear deal with Iran is becoming critical.
It is difficult to predict how events will unfold. To a large extent, it will depend on how firm the joint policy of the negotiators in Vienna, namely the United States, Russia, UK, France, China, and Germany, proves to be. The options, other than a quick diplomatic solution, include continuation of difficult negotiations and tougher sanctions, as well as cyber-attacks or military pinpoint strikes on Iran’s key nuclear facilities in order to slow down the country’s nuclear weapons development.
Large-scale military operations eliciting Iranian retaliation cannot be ruled out either. In this case, given the cautious approach of the US, Israel believes that it may have to go it alone and conduct highly unpopular military actions involving human casualties.
Understanding Israel’s position, and the new reality in the region thanks to the warming ties with Arab Sunni nations, providing diplomatic and logistical support for Israel to prevent Iran’s nuclear capability would be a very real threat felt in Tehran, especially if it involved a united front from the P5+1.
This could be the significant leverage that will bring a serious Iran back to the negotiating table ready to make the concessions necessary in order to prevent a nuclear catastrophe.
The Jewish State is particularly and understandably sensitive to a nation that calls for its annihilation. Hence the choice of alternative solutions depends on the leading Western nations and Russia holding a coordinated position in the Vienna talks. In turn, the choice will determine whether Iran will acquire nuclear weapons, which threaten both to collapse the Non-Proliferation Treaty and unleash a war in the region with an unpredictable escalation.
Meanwhile, it would be helpful if the UN Security Council permanent members became more sensitized to Israel’s stabilizing role in the Middle East. The fact is, since the 1980s Israel has managed to normalize relations, first with Egypt and Jordan and recently with the other major players in the region, while being the only democracy there. And most naturally, what should be avoided – not for the first time, by the way – is the mission of the Jewish people, and specifically in this case of the State of Israel, to undergo a tragedy in another global catastrophe in order to awaken the peoples of the world.
This article was written after the seventh round of talks in Vienna on reviving the Iran nuclear deal. The writer is president of the European Jewish Congress and president of the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe.