Negotiations for the parallel return of both the United States and Iran to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal, of July 2015 have been going on in Vienna, with an Iranian official source saying that the talks have achieved what he termed “70 per cent progress.”
In the meantime, the Israeli government sent a high-level security and political delegation to Washington last Monday to meet with senior officials in the Biden administration and to try to coordinate US and Israeli positions on the way forward in case the Vienna talks succeed in reaching an amended JCPOA agreement. This would entail the lifting of some US sanctions on Iran in exchange for more stringent conditions related to the Iranian nuclear programme and on Iran’s rolling back its recent violations of the JCPOA.
They claim that alleviating the sanctions should come after Iran has proved itself to be serious in honouring its commitments on its nuclear programme and that its regional overreach should be checked and dealt with, let alone its ballistic missile programme.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commented on the Vienna meetings last Wednesday, stressing that his country would not be committed to any agreement that would allow Iran to produce a nuclear weapon. Initially, the Israeli plan was to defend the status quo, that is, the maintenance of the “maximum pressure campaign” of the former US Trump administration that imposed between 1,500 and 1,600 sanctions against Iran after it decided to withdraw the US from the JCPOA on 8 May 2018. This campaign has not proven significantly effective in preventing the Iranians from getting nearer to having the capability to produce a nuclear bomb.
There has been a lot of speculation lately on the breakout time that Iran would need to have a nuclear weapon. Experts allege that this breakout time falls between six to 12 months from the day the political decision in Tehran is taken to produce such a device. As is to be expected, the main proponent of this nightmarish scenario is the Israeli prime minister himself. However, and contrary to the doomsday scenarios of his government, some former senior Israeli officials from the country’s military and the intelligence community are of the opinion that Iran would need two years to have a nuclear weapon effective from the date the political decision in this regard was adopted.
According to the same officials, one of them the former director of Mossad, such a decision has not been made for many years.
The Biden administration, in trying to reach an acceptably amended JCPOA, is facing not only Israeli opposition but also a Republican drive in the US to tie its hands in negotiating a comprehensive deal with Iran.
Congressman Jim Banks (R-Indiana), chair of the Republican Study Committee, has introduced a bill entitled the “Max Pressure Act” to the House of Representatives with the support of 90 Congressmen. In a press conference last Wednesday, he emphasised that the approach of the Trump administration towards Iran had born fruit. He said that the campaign to impose maximum pressure on Iran “took away 95 per cent of Iranian foreign-exchange reserves” in two and a half years and added that Tehran cannot “underwrite” terrorists without cash.
It is interesting to note that former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo also spoke at the press conference in his first public appearance since he left office in January.
In defending the Trump administration’s policies towards Iran, he said that the US, Israel, its ally, and the world were more secure because the maximum pressure campaign had prevented the Iranians from having the needed resources to manufacture a nuclear device or to bankroll terrorism around the world. He warned against any return to what he qualified as the “failed nuclear deal.”
Banks mentioned that a pressure campaign, “an effective one like we delivered, will continue to make the Iranians make difficult choices – hard choices about whether to underwrite Hizbullah or underwrite the militaries in Iraq.” He accused the Biden administration of adopting what he called a “weak approach” on Iran, arguing that the path it has taken will “embolden adversaries.”
In a defiant mood, he announced that those behind the introduction of the bill wanted to communicate to the Biden administration that we “will maintain sanctions on Iran and show our adversaries that if Joe Biden ever temporarily lifts sanctions we will reimpose them later.” It is doubtful that the Republicans in the House of Representatives will be able to muster enough votes to pass such a bill unless they can secure the votes of at least five Democrats, which is doubtful.
Going back to 2015, and to the hectic period preceding the signing of the JCPOA in July that year, it seems that some Republicans are coordinating with the Israeli lobby in Washington to keep the maximum pressure campaign in place or to undermine the diplomatic efforts of the Biden administration to become a party to the JCPOA once again.
In March 2015, Netanyahu, also the Israeli prime minister at the time, addressed a joint session of the US Congress on an invitation not from the president of the United States but from the Republican speaker of the House John Boehner. He tried to exert pressure on the then Obama administration not to sign a nuclear deal with Iran. Back then, his strategy was to strike Iran with the indirect help of the US. But the Obama administration did not want, and rightly so, to hear anything of the sort.
It goes without saying that the present efforts by the Israeli government are not certain to succeed. The push for the parallel return of both the US and Iran to the nuclear deal is strong, and it reflects new regional dynamics in the Middle East and the Gulf region. Of course, some fear that the lifting of some of the sanctions, those specifically related to the Iranian nuclear programme, will empower and embolden Iran. However, the Biden administration has promised that once those sanctions are lifted after Iran recommits to the original JCPOA conditions and limitations, it will deal with other Iranian destabilising activities, be they the ballistic missile programme or the country’s support for pro-Iranian militias across the Middle East and the Gulf.
It will not be easy, but it will not be impossible either. Diplomatic engagement is a more effective option than military confrontation.
Spokesperson for the US State Department Ned Price made clear in his press briefing last Thursday that if Iran “were to resume its full compliance with the JCPOA,” the US would do the same. This equation is known as “compliance for compliance.” The challenge will be to carry out stringent verifications on Iranian nuclear activities in the future so that Iran will never be in a position to manufacture a nuclear weapon. The long-term security and stability of the Middle East depends on that, among other questions.
One thing is certain, which is that the status quo is untenable because it opens the way for the Iranians to close the time gap in the breakout clause. According to some US officials, the maximum pressure campaign of the former Trump administration helped Iran to reduce the breakout time from two years to one year or less.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly