Final stretch of Iran nuke talks: Will there be a new deal? What's next?

NUCLEAR AFFAIRS: At this point, there are no measures left to toss out, short of freezing its nuclear progress, that the West can accept.

 AN AUSTRIAN POLICE officer stands outside Palais Coburg in Vienna, where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran have been taking place. (photo credit: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)
AN AUSTRIAN POLICE officer stands outside Palais Coburg in Vienna, where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran have been taking place.
(photo credit: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

Whether this week is the final stretch, as all parties have said, or whether nuclear negotiations with Iran might be drawn out until the IAEA Board of Governors meeting, which is set for March 7-11 next week, one thing is almost certain. Some decision is imminent.

True, both the Islamic Republic and the West have blown through deadlines in the past.

Tehran set deadlines, which the West ignored, for lifting sanctions in late 2020 and early 2021.

The West set deadlines for Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to cut a deal and freeze his country’s nuclear progress in December, January, early February and late February.

However, the IAEA Board meeting is not a random deadline, but a set event.

Iranian flag flies in front of the UN office building, housing IAEA headquarters, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Vienna, Austria, May 24, 2021. (credit: LISI NIESNER/ REUTERS)Iranian flag flies in front of the UN office building, housing IAEA headquarters, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Vienna, Austria, May 24, 2021. (credit: LISI NIESNER/ REUTERS)

If there is no deal, the West is committed to condemning Iran at the meeting and likely to start a process of referring the issue back to the UN Security Council for a snapback of full global sanctions much more comprehensive than existing American sanctions.

Given the US’s clear readiness to return to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal, including with some new concessions to Iran on advanced centrifuges, it is unlikely that Moscow or Beijing would veto.

If some past IAEA meetings led to kicking the can down the road, that was after Iran threw some kind of bone to the West, like restarting negotiations, reauthorizing IAEA access to the Karaj nuclear facility or some other interim measure.

At this point, there are no measures left to toss out, short of freezing its nuclear progress, that the West can accept.

Moreover, the US lifting of sanctions in early February, which needed to be lifted for the JCPOA to go back into effect, sent the clearest signal yet that it is make-or-break time for the Biden administration.

And the truth is that most Israeli intelligence officials believe that Khamenei really wants a deal. They simply think he has been haggling for as many concessions as possible, especially concessions that would make it harder for the US to threaten sanctions again for a “stronger and longer” deal.

If there is no nuclear deal at this point, then it would probably be due to an Iranian miscalculation that it thought it could push US President Joe Biden further than he was willing to go.

Some think the possibility of such a miscalculation has increased with the Russia-Ukraine war, based on the idea that Khamenei may think Washington has suddenly become even more desperate to clean the Iran issue off of its table.

The argument goes that if America wanted to focus its attention on the trade and technology war with China before, now it already will need to split its efforts to invest more in the new front with Moscow.

Iran’s latest three demands – ending the IAEA probe into its past nuclear military dimensions, lifting sanctions from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and various scenarios of guarantees against the US withdrawing from the deal again – all seem designed to test American determination more than to alter the substance of the deal.

Of course, Israel would be aghast if Iran were allowed to bury its lies about its illicit nuclear past again. It got to do so in the 2015 JCPOA, but this time it would be after the Mossad exposed those lies explicitly in January 2018.

But this is not a make-or-break issue for Israel as much as advanced centrifuges’ sunsets, ballistic missiles and regional terrorism, and it is very unlikely that Biden will formally agree to such a demand.

On Wednesday, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi loudly rejected political interference with his probes.

What could happen could be some sort of secret side or informal understanding that the IAEA probe will be left open, but with a promise of no consequences if Iran ignores it – as it has for four years.

Or maybe Grossi will get the ayatollahs to make some new admission that is not too damaging and then close the case as part of the emerging broader nuclear deal.

Grossi announced on Thursday that he would make a surprise dramatic visit to Tehran on Saturday, which could be directed at one of these outcomes.

It would be even more offensive to remove sanctions from the IRGC – a terrorist group if ever there was one. Biden’s position on this issue is less clear.

This point was flagged by a former US diplomat on Thursday as a move being pushed by lead US-Iran negotiator Rob Malley.

But the IRGC was not sanctioned by the JCPOA.

In fact, even Trump did not sanction the IRGC when he pulled out of the JCPOA in May 2018, or during his two big rounds of sanctions in August and November 2018.

Trump did not slap the IRGC sanctions all the way until April and June 2019.

And the key to the sanctions is really Iran’s oil sector.

If those sanctions are lifted by the US anyway, then lifting or not lifting the IRGC sanctions is again more about symbolism than substance.

All kinds of ideas of guarantees for Iran have been floated to prevent the US from withdrawing.

Some have mentioned statements by the Democratic leaders of the two houses of the US Congress committing to the deal.

Other ideas have been operational-financial, related to kicking in certain levels of irrevocable investments, and some relate to granting Khamenei a quick right to jump forward with his nuclear program if America leaves the deal.

Once again, it is hard to judge how meaningful any of these issues are.

Statements from congressional leaders with no vote from Congress – and there will be no vote because Biden probably would not even get a majority in the US Senate – would be legally meaningless.

Giving the Islamic Republic a more explicit offset to immediately violate the deal with 60% enrichment if the US pulled out seems more dangerous.

But it is not nearly as worrying as Biden lifting the sanctions and leaving JCPOA provisions in place which let much of the deal expire in 2025.

Put bluntly, Israel is more disturbed by the shape of the deal the US is ready to agree to, than it would be by the last three requests Iran has made, some of which Washington will reject.

So the most likely scenario is we are seeing Khamenei’s last rounds of kicking and screaming before he signs on the line.

If you go back to the 2015 deal signing, it would be almost an exact replay. There was high drama and multiple moments where a certain deal was suddenly dead, with diplomats ready to leave the negotiation site in failure, only to come back at the last second to seal things.

IF THERE is a deal, all Israeli eyes will be on the sequencing of sanctions relief with ensuring that Iran shuts down all of its illegal centrifuges for enriching uranium and that it ships its uranium stock – enough for two to three nuclear weapons – out of the country.

Sequencing is expected to take between one to three months (probably closer to three months.)

In a first stage, Iran would end its higher levels of enrichment in exchange for receiving between $7 billion and $8.5b. in frozen assets from South Korea and possibly some from England.

Israeli eyes will also be on where and how Tehran’s advanced centrifuges are stored. All indications are Jerusalem’s wish that they be destroyed has been ignored.

Questions will be asked about how it can be assured that Iran does not cheat with them. There will also be questions about what Iran may have hidden in mid- and late-2021 when it shut off IAEA access to many sites.

There will probably be a pause in Mossad operations to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities.

If, in fact, the Islamic Republic gives up its uranium stock and reduces its enrichment levels – which it did do during the July 2015-May 2019 period – there would be little immediate rationale for rocking the boat.

However, like in late 2015 and early 2016, the Mossad would likely put operations in the pipeline for covertly destroying centrifuges and weaponization aspects of Khamenei’s nuclear program in order to spring them before the 2025 nuclear limits would be due to expire.

Israel and the US would also need to dialogue about what covert Mossad or overt IDF military actions the US would agree to (including Biden rooting quietly for the Mossad/IDF from the sidelines) in connection with which Iranian violations.

A final understanding about what to do when the 2025 nuclear limits come off might be delayed. There will be a US presidential election in the middle, and some limits do not come off until 2030, but at least some initial understandings about 2025 would need to be reached.

WHAT IF no deal is reached, and the IAEA Board condemns Iran with a UN Security Council referral?

Such a process might leave some additional period of months for Khamenei to get the West back to the table.

In the meantime, America and the EU would be expected to ramp up sanctions and psychological pressure on the ayatollahs.

But unless the UNSC rules, what effect will that really have when China is reportedly buying 700,000 barrels of oil per day from Iran, exceeding a previous high of 2017?

This does not match the 2.5 million barrels per day worldwide that Iran reached in 2018, but it could be enough to give Khamenei more time to drag his feet.

The bigger question would be whether Israel would up the ante in terms of using force.

All signs are that the current government would try a rerun of earlier covert Mossad attacks on nuclear scientists or facilities without undertaking a major IDF game-changing strike.

As long as Khamenei does not go above 60% to 90% and Israeli intelligence believes he is six months to two years from solving detonation and delivery issues, the current government will likely hold off on such a big move.

One way or another, whether this weekend or next week, the Iran nuclear standoff is entering a new decisive phase.