Final does not mean final in Iran nuclear talks

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: The Iran nuclear talks have been almost over for 10 months, and it keeps getting dragged out further.

 AN IRANIAN woman walks past a wall of the former US Embassy with an anti-America mural on it (photo credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA/REUTERS)
AN IRANIAN woman walks past a wall of the former US Embassy with an anti-America mural on it

We’ve been hearing it for something like 10 months at this point: Iran nuclear talks are almost over.

First it was a matter of weeks, which continued for many weeks. Then the end was days away. Then there was a hiatus of almost five months, during which we were told by Western parties to the talks that time is of the essence. When the talks made a comeback in recent weeks, it was the last chance to salvage the 2015 agreement before it no longer has significant nonproliferation benefits.

Earlier this month, we got the “final” text of the renewed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 Iran deal was known – but even that was subject to talks on technical aspects of implementation.

Monday was the deadline for Iran to respond to that draft, but anyone expecting Tehran to simply say yes or no to the supposedly “final” draft must not have been paying attention. Of course, Iran responded with a counteroffer.

Once again, when it comes to Iran talks, final is not quite final.

 ROBERT MALLEY, the Biden administration special envoy for Iran, waits to testify about the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations on Capitol Hill last week. (credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images) ROBERT MALLEY, the Biden administration special envoy for Iran, waits to testify about the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations on Capitol Hill last week. (credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

What does Iran want?

IRAN’S MAIN demand in its response was something it has wanted all along, a firm guarantee that US presidents will not be able to leave the deal without heavy consequences.

On the one hand, this is understandable. The way Tehran sees it – leaving aside its lies about its nuclear program and continued malign actions in the region – it entered a deal in 2015 that was supposed to last through 2030, and the US left it in 2018, once again deeply damaging the Iranian economy.

“If the US doesn’t have to pay a price for violating or leaving a future deal, history will repeat itself,” Mohammad Marandi, a spokesman for Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, tweeted this week.

However, this is a demand that US President Joe Biden legally cannot fulfill. The Iran deal is not a treaty that was or is meant to be ratified by Congress. He cannot bind the next president to keeping it intact.

The other element of the guarantees Iran is seeking is that Western companies will, in fact, engage with the Islamic Republic economically after sanctions are lifted as part of the JCPOA’s implementation.

That is also something that neither Biden nor the E3 – Britain, France and Germany – nor the talks’ coordinator, the EU, can do in free market economies. Companies may have reasonable concerns about doing business with a pariah state, because it had previously faced heavy sanctions that could come back when the deal ends in 2030, or even before that if another US president withdraws from the deal. That was the case in 2015, as well, which frustrated Tehran.

What Iran’s response didn’t include was any mention of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s investigation into traces of nuclear material found at undeclared sites, which essentially point to a secret nuclear weapons program, as detailed in the archive smuggled out of Iran by the Mossad in 2018. Iran has demanded that the IAEA close the probes, turning off the agency’s monitoring cameras in the country, while the E3 and US backed a statement by the IAEA Board of Governors calling on Iran to answer the nuclear watchdog’s questions. The Western parties to the deal also expressed opposition to the politicization of the IAEA by making it subject to the P5’s negotiations.

The EU’s final draft offered a compromise on that front, stating that it will not oppose the closing of the investigation if Iran gives credible responses as to the origin of the nuclear traces by the time a deal is implemented. Iran did not accept that wording, but it did not reject it, either.

Western diplomats involved in Iran talks have told reporters that they view Iran’s demands as moderate and workable, by Iranian standards. Plus, the fact that Iran responded on time, despite disdaining the West’s deadlines, shows they are taking the talks seriously.

A weaker deal?

THE DEAL, as it stands, has all of the weaknesses of the 2015 deal, and then some.

Like the JCPOA, it restricts Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

With sanctions lifted, Iran is expected to get a massive cash influx into its economy. Even without the guarantees Iran seeks, the Islamic Republic will be able to access tens of billions of dollars from bank accounts across the world and to sell oil freely. Because the JCPOA does not address anything beyond uranium enrichment, that money can go to Iran’s proxy warfare across the region or its ballistic missile program, among other ways to threaten its neighbors and beyond.

The deal will still have “sunset clauses,” with limitations on manufacturing advanced centrifuges expiring next year. All of the deal’s restrictions, such as on the level of uranium enrichment – to 3.25% purity – and stockpiling, end in 2030, which the JCPOA’s critics have recognized is a pathway for legitimizing Iran to enrich uranium at higher levels and in a greater volume in the next decade.

In addition, back in 2015, Iran shipped its enriched uranium to Russia. Now that Iran has enriched to 60% – which has no credible civilian use and is thought to be a greater purity level than any country without nuclear weapons, which need 90%, has reached – it cannot safely transfer the uranium to another country, so it will have to be locked up and monitored in Iran.

Plus, it’s unclear what Iran’s nonanswer about the IAEA probe means. One can understand it as Iran accepting it, because they didn’t reject it. But Iran could also use the issue as another way to draw out the negotiations, rejecting the EU compromise further down the line.

Even if Iran does accept the deal, it means that, in all likelihood, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi will be the only one in the way of a political deal to close his agency’s legitimate safeguards investigation. Grossi has been more outspoken than his predecessors when it comes to Iran, but it is a lot of pressure to be the last man standing, told that he is obstructing a deal that would stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

Why are talks not over?

ANOTHER REASON the “final” Iran deal may not be as final as it was in late 2021-early 2022 is the context in which these wrap-up talks are taking place.

Acclaimed author Salman Rushdie was stabbed by an admirer of Iran’s mullahs last week, 32 years after Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini issued a fatwa – a religious ruling – that he should be killed, which the current Ayatollah Khamenei has upheld. The US arrested a hit man paid by Iran to kill former national security advisor John Bolton, and ex-secretary of state Mike Pompeo and defense secretary Mark Esper are under constant secret service protection because of similar threats. A man with an AK-47 was recently caught lurking outside the home of Iranian-American journalist and women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad in Brooklyn.

US Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley may be able to treat the Iran nuclear file as separate from everything else, acting like he has tunnel vision with only the JCPOA in sight, but Biden doesn’t have that luxury. He needs to see the bigger picture.

And that bigger picture means that a nuclear deal would mean allowing Iran to get billions of dollars, which it can use to up the price on Rushdie’s or Bolton’s head, among other acts of terrorism it can sponsor on American soil and around the world.

In addition, a reasonable argument can be made that with all the differences between the 2015 deal and the one currently on the table, the agreement is subject to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which requires congressional review before a president waives or suspends sanctions on Iran.

For an unpopular deal to go to a vote right after a series of terrorist threats on US soil and right before the midterm elections may be too much for congressional Democrats, especially those in swing states. It would not be a surprise if House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer or Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tell Biden “not now” – which may not kill the deal, but could further delay it.

Across the pond, in London and Paris, frustration with Iran talks is growing as well, according to diplomatic sources, though public indications are more subtle.

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is viewed as an Iran hawk, but is maintaining her ministry’s position of supporting the talks. Her opponent in the current race for the premiership, Rishi Sunak, has floated scrapping the deal in hopes of a longer-lasting and more robust one.

Still, the US and E3 want an Iran deal. They all think that is the best way to at least delay Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. And that could end up outweighing all of the other considerations.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, the Prime Minister’s Office and other relevant ministries are in constant contact with their counterparts in Washington and other capitals. The disagreement between the Biden administration and Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett before him on the value of an Iran deal still stands, but Lapid is maintaining Bennett’s policy of dialogue despite the differences, and the channels of communication remain open and active.

Now, it remains to be seen if and when “final” will really mean final.