There is growing unease in Western capitals about prospects for the resumption of negotiations on the nuclear deal with Iran, with the last few days being full of conflicting signals.
Tehran has for the first time set out what looks like a timetable for the resumption of the nuclear negotiations, but the US has hardened its tone and reiterated that it has other options in the event of the failure of negotiations with Iran.
Optimism about a successful outcome is waning in the European capitals amid the growing realisation that Tehran is negotiating with the Biden administration while setting its sights on former US president Donald Trump.
Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi want guarantees that in the event of a return to the nuclear agreement, the deal must be protected from a unilateral withdrawal of any country, as happened during the administration of former president Trump.
In 2018, Trump withdrew the US from the multilateral deal and began reimposing a wide range of sanctions on Iran. Tehran has gradually rolled back its nuclear commitments since 2019.
A European diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly that the European capitals understand Iran’s concerns, but there are political complexities that stand in the way of its demands. “The most that the Biden administration can achieve is to resume negotiations with Tehran and return to the agreement, but giving guarantees related to the behaviour of future US administrations is not viable,” he added.
As much as Iran wants and needs the international community to return to the nuclear deal, it would be catastrophic for Iran, Khamenei and the conservatives in the country to return to the deal only to see it binned again under a new US administration.
While Iran is stuck between a rock and a hard place on the deal, it also has to keep moving. For the first time since Raisi’s election, Tehran has suggested a date for a possible return to the negotiating table.
Iran foresees the talks could be resuming by early November, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Monday.
“I don’t think it will take us the same amount of time as it took the Biden administration to come,” Khatibzadeh said, referring to US diplomats indirectly joining the Vienna talks.
“The government of [President] Ebrahim Raisi has been in power for fewer than 55 days… I don’t think that the [return to the talks] will take as long as 90 days,” he added, indicating that Iran believes the talks will be underway again by the second week of November.
While Khatibzadeh reiterated that Tehran was ready to resume the talks soon, he cautioned that “details” and “issues” needed to be reviewed. The biggest issue is the removal of the “800 new unilateral and illegal” sanctions imposed on Iran after Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the nuclear deal back in May 2018.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has demanded assets worth $10 billion to be released as a goodwill gesture.
He said that US officials had used intermediaries at the UN meetings last month to discuss the restarting of the nuclear talks, but he insisted that Washington must first release the frozen funds as a sign of goodwill.
Iran has been unable to obtain tens of billions of dollars of its assets in foreign banks, mainly from exports of oil and gas, due to US sanctions on its banking and energy sectors.
“The Americans tried to contact us through different channels [at the UN General Assembly] in New York, and I told the mediators that if America’s intentions are serious then a serious indication was needed... by releasing at least $10 billion of blocked money,” Amirabdollahian said.
“They are not willing to free $10 billion belonging to the Iranian nation, so that we can say that the Americans once in the past several decades considered the interests of the Iranian nation,” he added.
The Western powers have urged Iran to return to the negotiations and said time is running out as Tehran’s nuclear programme is advancing well beyond the limits set by the earlier deal.
Amirabdollahian reiterated that Iran would “soon” return to the stalled nuclear talks but declined to give a date.
Tehran says the steps it has taken on its nuclear programme are reversible if Washington lifts the sanctions. Iranian and Western officials have said many issues remain to be resolved before the accord can be revived.
But Germany said it would reject any Iranian demands for the US to release frozen Iranian assets as a condition for the nuclear talks to resume, its Foreign Ministry said on Monday.
“If new conditions are being set by Iran for the talks to be resumed, then we reject that,” a German Foreign Ministry spokesman said. “We call on Iran to resume the talks as soon as possible,” the spokesman added, saying he expected an agreement on a specific date.
Meanwhile, top US officials told their Israeli counterparts on Tuesday that the Biden administration remained committed to diplomacy with Iran, but it would be prepared to pursue “other avenues” to ensure Tehran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, a senior US official said.
A visit to Washington by Israeli National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata will allow the two allies to share intelligence and develop a “baseline assessment” of how far Tehran’s nuclear programme has advanced, the official said.
Under the 2015 deal, Iran curbed its uranium enrichment programme, a possible pathway to nuclear arms, in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. Then-US president Donald Trump quit the deal in 2018.
In broad terms, US experts believe that the time it would take Iran to achieve nuclear “breakout” – enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb – has “gone from about 12 months down to a period of about a few months” since Trump pulled out of the pact, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Obviously, that is quite alarming,” the official told reporters ahead of Hulata’s talks with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
Iran has consistently denied it is developing nuclear weapons.
Echoing Biden’s stance that the US remains committed to a diplomatic path, the US official said that “if that doesn’t work, there are other avenues to pursue, and we are fully committed to ensuring that Iran never develops a nuclear weapon.”
Asked what actions were under consideration and whether they included military options, the official said “we’ll be prepared to take measures that are necessary” but did not elaborate.
The official said that Iran was “sending indications to a number of parties that they are preparing to come back to Vienna,” where the US and Iran held indirect talks earlier this year.
But he signalled that obstacles remain, referring to Tehran’s demand for the US to first release $10 billion of Tehran’s frozen funds as a sign of goodwill, something the Biden administration has shown no willingness to do.
The European capitals find themselves in a delicate situation as returning to the nuclear deal has proven to be much more difficult than they may have envisioned. The conservatives in Iran do not want to suffer the same slap in the face that the reformists suffered.
As for the Biden administration, as the Europeans discovered during the hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, its foreign policies are designed to address domestic audiences, leaving only a very narrow road for success on the global stage.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly