Statements by United States officials in recent months indicate that the US takes the idea of a nuclear Iran for granted. So the focus has shifted from preventing this risk from materializing to retarding it. The most recent of these statements came from the US special envoy to Iran, Robert Malley, who recently stated that Iran is only weeks away from having enough material to build a nuclear bomb.
He expressed hope that a nuclear agreement would be reached as soon as possible. In a television interview, Malley said that the situation today, as a result of the decision to pull out of the nuclear agreement, is that Iran is only a few weeks away from having enough fissile material to make a nuclear bomb.
He added that an agreement would set Iran back several months in terms of possessing the material needed to manufacture a bomb.
All of these major diplomatic efforts are aimed at delaying the Iranian nuclear threat, not to end it or even to freeze or delay it for years, but only for a few months. This statement, repeated several times by Biden administration officials, was not intended to palm off to the American public the idea of returning to the agreement and the mistake of withdrawing from it.
Rather, it essentially expresses this administration’s belief that it recognizes the existence of a nuclear Iran. It is a done deal with that. Personally, I don’t see much point in Iran having a nuclear bomb today or tomorrow being worth negotiating over.
Iran's behavior in the region won't change without outside pressure
The threat exists. Iran’s provocative behavior in our region will not change as long as there is a mutual understanding of the existence of dangerous weapons that Tehran can produce at an accelerated pace under outside pressure. Therefore, we do not believe that it is worth wasting all these US diplomatic efforts just to get a card that delays but does not do away with the danger.
All of this seems absurd and reflects a desire to achieve an imaginary political victory that can be sold to American voters to save Democratic candidates in the midterm congressional elections. The biggest winner in the negotiations to resuscitate the nuclear agreement is hands down Iran.
This is not speculation, but in fact, a restriction, not a condition, especially in light of Iran’s recent condition to receive compensation if a future US administration pulls out of the agreement. The agreement is virtually immune from a decision, such as that made by former president Trump when he withdrew from the agreement in 2018.
The compensation demanded would certainly be calculated carefully by the Iranians. There are other gains Iran has made, such as the time it has been able to accumulate fissile material.
IN FACT, its ability to negotiate steadily and not make any significant concessions so far is in itself a new political victory for it, in addition to what was achieved in the baseline signing of the agreement in 2015.
The international environment has indeed helped to strengthen Iran’s negotiating position, especially since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the need to bring Iranian oil back to the markets, especially to Europe, and the stronger support for Tehran from China and Russia at the talks in Vienna.
None of this, however, can obscure the overly indecisive and overcautious calculus of the US negotiating team, which stems from the Biden administration’s stance on increasing pressure on Tehran or engaging it by force. Biden remained very cautious with the stick to the point where Iran realized that a military option against it was not being considered at all by US policymakers.
No one in our region wants to start a war or use military force against Iran as long as they respect international law. But this is about American negotiating strategies that can only succeed if they rely on influential negotiating cards, if they balance the stick and the carrot effectively and decisively, and if they know how to use one or the other, when, and to what extent.
But the bottom line is that US negotiators have gone to Vienna from the beginning virtually begging Iran to return to the agreement and save face with the current administration. For the Gulf Cooperation Council and Israel, as major regional players who see a real threat from Iran, I think there is no strategic difference between going back to or walking away from the nuclear agreement.
Removing the threat and postponing it for months, not weeks, will not do the trick. The impact of the nuclear deterrent comes not only from its existence or even the possibility of resorting to it, but also from the way it is applied and used militarily to menace others.
Iran has not hesitated to make bad use of it, which undermines regional and global security, since the beginning of its ascent up the nuclear ladder. The threat will not recede or be pushed aside. It will run its course, and the next one will be even worse, especially given the new international balance of power, international polarization, Europe’s need for Iranian oil, and the need of all competing international powers to engage Iran, which plays well in this tense environment to achieve its strategic objectives.
The Biden administration’s blame on Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement is certainly a misplaced excuse for observers like me. The original agreement itself is only a few years away from expiring.
Moreover, negotiations to reinstate and revive the agreement lasted almost as long as Trump’s exit period, during which, mind you, there was no fundamental violation of the terms of the agreement by Iran, for fear of Trump’s lack of restraint.
Overall, it is clear that the signing of new agreements to revive the nuclear deal is inevitable. The Middle East is witnessing a new variable in regional interactions. It is possible that there will be a slow rapprochement between the US and Europe with Iran to pull it out of the sphere of influence of China and Russia.
Therefore, the GCC countries must carefully consider what is happening around them, and continue their current strategic and participatory options with all international and regional powers. This is the best way to safeguard their interests.
The writer is a UAE political analyst and former Federal National Council candidate.