In global efforts on nuclear non-proliferation, and the creation of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, the world’s focus is back on Vienna and the rocky path back to compliance by the US and Iran with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The stakes are dizzyingly high, but despite the willingness of both parties to engage in indirect dialogue to flesh out palatable compromises and conjure an agreement around them, short of rewarding Iran for accelerating its nuclear programs in pursuit of more lethal leverage, the current iteration of the JCPOA is unlikely to survive.
The powers engaged in these talks are fully aware of the deep complexities surrounding a negotiated return to a faulty and outdated agreement. Fortunately, vastly changed dynamics and the shifting calculus on Iran’s nuclear programs have not dissuaded negotiators from pursuing a favorable conclusion to this rare tête-à-tête between diametrically opposed interests.
Many analysts are convinced a wholesale return to 2015 is simply impossible. Instead, the only possible success to come out of Vienna will be a series of interim agreements that incrementally build to something more resilient to the usual biennial and quadrennial electoral headwinds in Washington. Forcing a return to the JCPOA in its current form would deliver only a short-lived diplomatic victory with a hefty political cost for a Biden administration still struggling to sell its domestic agenda ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
Tehran, on the other hand, is faced with a complicated situation of its own — and, arguably, one partly of its own making. Maximum-pressure sanctions continue to squeeze Iran, despite attempts at diversifying and building a “resistance economy.” Worse yet, water levels in its reservoirs and lakes have dropped by half due to a severe drought, making Iran one of the most water-stressed countries in the world.
Water scarcity has already led to protests in its third largest city with a population of about two million, capping off a summer of unrest as Iranians increasingly took to the streets to air grievances on a range of issues from unpaid wages to electricity blackouts. Iran’s economy has yet to recover from a 12 percent contraction before the COVID-19 pandemic, and while the government took steps to mitigate these challenges, the improvements are still far from sufficient.
The reimposition of punitive sanctions and subsequent isolation have already kneecapped Iran’s oil exports, shrunk its non-oil trade, weakened the rial, caused inflation to skyrocket, and driven an increase in unemployment. Despite their pronouncements to the contrary, it is evident even to its hard-line government that the key to reversing Iran’s fortunes lies in total sanctions relief, which can come only if Tehran accedes to US demands.
However, the Raisi administration is telegraphing an insistence on drivinga hard bargain rather than offeringconfidence-building concessions in Vienna. The new cadre of doctrinaire ideological negotiators have already rejected a painstakingly negotiated text, backtracking on diplomatic progress by insisting on major changes incompatible with the JCPOA. It has led to some Western officials concluding that Iran is perhaps unserious about making a deal, and may be using these preliminary rounds to scope out the potency of its leverage from continued enrichment activities.
So far, the most pronounced demand from Tehran is that its continued participation in the talks depends on the US first lifting sanctions. This is an obvious non-starter since those very sanctions are a major component of Washington’s leverage, to be yielded and used to maximum benefit — much as Tehran is attempting to do.
It may therefore appear that this seventh round of talks is already doomed. However, for some of the negotiating parties, the situation is not exactly disadvantageous. Iran is already beset by a crumbling economy, and facesfurther isolation. Its precarious position also extends to its leverage.
Forcing a return to the JCPOA in its current form would deliver only a short-lived diplomatic victory with a hefty political cost for a Biden administration still struggling to sell its domestic agenda ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
Continuing its enrichment programs and resisting inspections from the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, may be a cause for alarm. However, the more Iran erodes the foundations of the 2015 deal, the less likely it becomes that negotiating powers will entertain Tehran’s proposals based on it. In other words, if Iran gets closer to the dreaded nuclear breakout, it only justifies America’s reluctance to concede on sanctions relief as an inducement for more stringent nuclear restrictions.
In addition, Iran’s pursuit of offensive nuclear capabilities carries dangerous ramifications for the wider Middle East, where some states have active programs for non-offensive applications. If Tehran achieves nuclear breakout, other Arab countries will quickly follow suit — with tacit endorsement from leading nuclear powers seeking to swiftly counterbalance Iran’s stockpile. Thus, a continuation of this festering situation appears a lot easier to tolerate than trying to overcome the diplomatic challenges and political costs of pushing for what would probably be an ineffectual settlement.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell