Since April 2021, Iran and the US have been in a staring contest to see who would blink first and re-enter the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal on more favorable terms to the other side.
Three weeks ago, it seemed there was finally a clear answer and this past weekend it seemed like there was finally an equally certain, though polar opposite, answer.
Yet, as of Thursday, the picture was as muddled as ever about whether we are moving toward a deal or escalated conflict.
On June 9, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi shook the world when he said the Islamic Republic’s decision to shut off 27 of his agency’s nuclear surveillance cameras would be a “fatal blow” to the JCPOA if they were not turned back on within three to four weeks.
Doing the math, that deadline would expire on Thursday, June 30, or, at the latest, July 7, next week.
Both Washington and Tehran were digging in and escalating, while showing no signs of compromise or desire to embrace restraint. It seemed obvious that after a 15-month standoff, they had lost patience with each other.
The Biden administration would start to move toward a UN Security Council referral and potential full global snapback sanctions, with Israel continuing to carry out cyber and covert operations to bloody Iran and slow its nuclear program.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would probably order enriching uranium up from the already high 60% level to the weaponized level of 90%.
Maybe he would start kicking IAEA inspectors out of the country in addition to having shut off more than two dozen cameras. He might also double efforts to launch satellites into space in preparation for developing intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit the West.
Maybe he still might refrain from actually producing a nuclear weapon, but basically, Khamenei would move his country to the nuclear threshold.
Washington would hope the bad press at the UNSC and the threat or start of global snapback sanctions would finally get Tehran to give up hopes of new concessions and return to the JCPOA as is.
The ayatollahs would hope that moving to the nuclear threshold would sufficiently terrify the West to remove the IRGC from the US terror list or grant some other economic sweeteners.
This was the narrative for the last three weeks.
But appearances can be deceiving. Suddenly, last weekend, everything shifted.
EU official Enrique Mora came to Tehran for what was billed as a dramatic turning-point-style visit.
He and Iranian officials declared that new understandings had been reached to allow a return to talks.
The new seriousness of the negotiations seemed to be foreshadowed by fundamental changes to the context of the negotiations themselves.
No longer would negotiators meet in Vienna, but in Qatar.
The context was not the P5+1, which also included Russia and China, but just Iran, the US and the EU-3 of the United Kingdom, France and Germany – all represented by Mora.
Everyone would be in the same hotel instead of Iran and the US being in different hotels. This maybe also meant secret direct meetings, even if publicly Iran insisted the EU was still shuttling between the parties.
It seemed that both sides had been bluffing, but really wanted a deal all along and were now going to get down to business before things really got out of hand.
And then came Wednesday, when the script was flipped not once, but twice, within hours.
At 4:54 p.m., the Iranian Mehr media site reported, along with other sites, that the talks had failed again and were paused.
“What prevented these negotiations from coming to fruition is the US insistence on its proposed draft text in Vienna that excludes any guarantee for Iran’s economic benefits,” the report on Tasnim said, citing informed sources at the talks.
Then, less than an hour later, at 5:34 p.m., reports came out of Mehr and Iran that the earlier reports were wrong and that talks were still serious and ongoing. Two completely contradictory reports were posted right next to each other on the Mehr website.
“The two-day talks are not over yet and later today Iran’s top nuclear negotiator and the EU’s envoy Enrique Mora will meet again,” ministry spokesman Naser Kanani said, according to Iranian state media.
“Talks continue in a serious and business-like atmosphere.”Ministry Spokesman Naser Kanani
This set a new level of dizzying change even for the crazy Iran nuclear talks.
What produced the two sudden shifts?
It is no coincidence that the talks to date have neither completely blown up nor led to a deal.
Both Khamenei and President Joe Biden are struggling domestically.
Khamenei had hoped that his new handpicked president in August 2021, Ebrahim Raisi (this time Khamenei disqualified all viable candidates to make sure there was no variable), would be so tough and scary that Biden would beg for a deal and toss out concessions galore.
For a long time there was reason to think he might be right.
Raisi tore up an almost finished deal reached by his predecessor’s administration in May-June 2021 and demanded a list of new concessions.
This was after he completely ignored the US for around six months.
Despite being treated like a second-rate nation, the US turned the other cheek and simply stuck to its mantra that it would wait patiently and endure being smacked around because a return to the JCPOA was in its interests.
Being more accurate, Biden officials for around a year also added that time was running short. But in the Middle East, such vague statements with no hard deadline were a clear show of weakness and desperation.
The truth is that America really did want to get back in the deal so it could stop thinking about Tehran and focus on its next 50 years of competition with China.
But neither was Biden ever part of the return-to-the-JCPOA-at-nearly-all-costs camp that many of his negotiators were part of.
Having served in Congress both before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, he holds old-school distrust of the regime on a different level than some younger Democrats. This was also part of his being unable to stomach delisting the IRGC as a terror group.
His weakness in polling due to US economic instability also did not give him maneuvering room to take a domestic political hit to achieve a foreign policy goal. This was especially true when around two-thirds of the Senate voted against delisting the IRGC (even if the vote was non-binding.)
All of this means Biden has sent mixed messages, intentionally or not.
Khamenei also swung back and forth.
After Raisi failed to get new concessions from the US (beyond some key concessions about advanced centrifuges already agreed to in mid-2021), Khamenei gave permission to return to negotiations in late 2021/early 2022.
The sides were close to a deal when the conflict between the West and Russia broke out over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Suddenly, Khamenei thought that a new divided world economy and the West’s sudden need for sources of oil to replace Russian oil might give him the upper hand again. So Iran pulled back.
Moreover, ironically, with all of this stalling, there are fewer than two and a half years left in Biden’s term. In turn, that means possibly less time for an Iranian economic recovery (before a potential less-friendly Republican president) than there would have been if a quick deal had been cut.
What would be the point of making nuclear concessions for such a short economic recovery when it could easily take six months from a signed deal for the Iranian general public to start to feel the recovery.
This is probably where the sides were until three weeks ago.
Then looking at things “getting out of hand” both sides probably remembered they were posturing and wanted a deal.
Especially for Iran, Khamenei must be sick of getting whipped by Israel and the Mossad – whether it be his nuclear scientists and IRGC officials being assassinated, his steel industry being hacked or his plans to kidnap Israelis in Turkey being publicly thwarted.
All of that led this week to Khamenei firing the powerful chief of IRGC intelligence Hossein Taeb, who had many previous successes and had been in power since 2009.
Maybe some Iranians are also confused about whether incoming-Prime Minister Yair Lapid will be as tough on them as outgoing-prime minister Naftali Bennett.
But basically, with his back against the wall, Khamenei went back to negotiations.
It seems the hour-long Iranian walkout on Wednesday was from a negotiator who was still acting based on the script that was used three months ago. This error was corrected at lightning speed because Tehran has no real Plan B for escalation that it likes. Unless there is a third swing of momentum, it seems the Iranians seem back to being serious about a deal in the coming days or weeks.
Yet, there are a number of variables and the fact is that both sides would only take the deal on the table as the least bad option, not with enthusiasm. That means that the standoff could still just as likely suddenly escalate again into major conflict as much as end in a deal by next weekend.