The war of words has escalated between Iran and the West as further talks in Vienna to restore the nuclear deal between Tehran and the Western powers loom, with the former labelling the Europeans “passive spectators” of the deal and saying that their inaction emboldened the former administration of US president Donald Trump to withdraw from it.
The Iranian accusations are sure to cause concern in Europe, as while the Europeans want to develop their strategic independence in foreign, defence and security policy, many still regard Europe as moving in the US orbit.
The resumption of the nuclear negotiations with Iran has become a priority after Tehran declared it had produced more than 120 kg of 20 per cent enriched uranium, noticeably more than the 84 kg reported by UN inspectors last month and approaching the 170 kg required to make a bomb after further enrichment.
The Iranian announcement could mean that Iran’s “breakout time” – the time it would need to make one bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium – has shrunk significantly since its resumption of nuclear activities after the collapse of the nuclear deal.
US officials now put the “breakout time” at “a few months” compared to a year when the nuclear deal was in force. Under the deal, Iran reduced its uranium enrichment levels, and all its nuclear activities were under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
“There is a growing realisation that any delay in returning to the nuclear agreement will have serious repercussions. Iran itself has announced that the amount of enriched uranium it has is greater than the estimates of the IAEA and is close to the amount required to manufacture a bomb,” a Western diplomat familiar with the negotiations told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“The West has only two options: to accelerate the effort to return to the nuclear agreement and make sure Iran is abiding by its provisions or risk a military confrontation to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Talks are much easier than military action,” he added.
During a visit this week to Israel, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the coming weeks would be decisive for the future of the nuclear deal with Iran, adding that every day that passed without Tehran responding to US overtures would result in Iran enriching more uranium.
The outgoing chancellor said that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a responsibility to help push Iran back to the negotiating table, while speaking at a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
“I also see a responsibility for Russia and China here, since if the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] is no longer doing what it’s meant to do, then that’s very difficult, so we are now in very decisive weeks for this deal,” Merkel said.
Her intervention came as Iran called on the European countries to guarantee the existing nuclear deal that the parties are set to revisit during the planned resumption of talks in Vienna.
“The European capitals, including Berlin, have been passive spectators… Angela Merkel and the European countries know that without Europe’s inaction, Trump would not have dared to withdraw from all the agreements or to violate the nuclear deal,” Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told reporters on Monday.
“We therefore expect all parties, when they arrive in Vienna, to know that they have no choice but to adhere to their obligations under the nuclear deal,” he said during a news conference.
“They must give their clear assurance to the Islamic Republic that this time no party will violate the nuclear deal.”
The deal was concluded in 2015 with the US, UK, China, Russia, France and Germany and offered Iran relief from international sanctions in exchange for drastically limiting its nuclear programme, while also placing it under UN supervision.
But the US unilaterally pulled out of the deal under former president Donald Trump and reimposed sanctions, prompting Tehran to gradually renege on its commitments.
Talks got underway in Vienna in April to revive the deal, but they have been suspended since June when Iran elected conservative Ebrahim Raisi as president. Tehran said last week it expected the talks to resume within days.
During her visit to Israel, Merkel called on Iran to immediately return to the talks.
“The message to Iran is unequivocal: return to the negotiating table immediately,” she said.
In response Khatibzadeh told reporters that “there is no new text or deal being negotiated. It is simply a matter of technical talks to ensure the full implementation of the nuclear deal by all parties.”
“The Vienna talks, I repeat, will take place, and in the next days you will see more activity and diplomatic exchange around the nuclear deal,” he said.
On Saturday, Iranian Nuclear Chief Mohamed Eslami said in an interview with state TV that under the 2015 nuclear deal the other signatories were to provide Iran with then 20 per cent enriched uranium needed for its research reactor.
“But it was not delivered,” he said. “If we had not produced it by ourselves this would have turned into one of our problems.”
Under the terms of the nuclear deal, Iran was prohibited from enriching uranium above 3.67 per cent with the exception of research reactor activities. Enriched uranium above 90 per cent can be used in a nuclear weapon.
In September, the IAEA said Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to up to 20 per cent, fissile purity was estimated at 84.3 kg, up from 62.8 kg three months earlier. Scientists estimate that at least 170 kg of enriched uranium is needed to make a bomb.
Tehran’s strategy of violating the deal is seen by some European powers as an attempt to put pressure on Europe to provide it with incentives to offset crippling American sanctions re-imposed after the US pullout.
US President Joe Biden has said he is open to re-joining the deal, but he has refused to lift any sanctions on Iran as a goodwill gesture.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly