In a sign that reviving the nuclear deal between Iran and the Western powers remains elusive despite the careful rhetoric that a deal is there to be done, the US Biden administration has asked the Russians and Chinese for support to salvage the deal before its threatened collapse.
The steps taken by the US administration to ask Moscow and Beijing for help to put pressure on Iran illustrate the difficult juncture the negotiations are going through.
US relations with both Russia and China are also going through difficult times after Washington announced it would send troops to Ukraine if Russia invaded the country and that it would boycott the Winter Olympics in China.
China and Russia, both allies of Iran, are said to be surprised by how far the new Iranian administration has gone back on compromises made by former Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to revive the deal.
The talks on the deal in Vienna faltered badly last week when Iran said it wanted to renegotiate many issues, including the lifting of sanctions on Iran. In addition to Iran’s demand that the Biden administration lift all sanctions imposed during the administration of former US president Donald Trump, Tehran also wants guarantees that the US will not withdraw again from any new agreement that is reached.
Western officials voiced dismay at the Iranian demands amid concerns that Iran wants to advance its nuclear programme while at the same time negotiating to curb it. Renegotiating issues previously negotiated by the Rouhani government in Tehran means wasting time and risking the negotiations collapsing because there are many details in these complex talks.
The new hardline stance has raised a lot of anxiety in the West, and some consider it to be an attempt by Tehran to buy time to continue enriching uranium before eventually returning to the nuclear deal.
US officials have confirmed that they will press ahead with plans for an emergency board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) before the end of the year if Iran does not restore a level of access to its nuclear sites that satisfies the nuclear watchdog.
Germany wants Iran to present “realistic proposals” in talks over its nuclear programme, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said on Monday, adding that the offers Tehran made last week almost all violate previously agreed compromises.
The Iranian proposals are “not a basis for a successful end to the talks,” she said. “We reviewed the proposals... carefully and thoroughly and concluded that Iran violated almost all the compromises found previously in months of hard negotiations.”
Iran and the major powers started talks in April aimed at bringing Tehran and Washington back into full compliance with the 2015 pact that was abandoned by Trump three years ago. But the negotiations stopped after the election of Iran’s hardline President Ebrahim Raisi in June.
The German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said it was “unacceptable” for Iran to be advancing its nuclear capacity in parallel with the talks. She said Berlin wanted to build on progress already made and remained “committed to the diplomatic path. But the window of opportunity is closing more and more.”
A senior Iranian official said this week that the US reluctance to lift all the sanctions reimposed on Iran by Trump was the main challenge to reviving the deal. The second round of the negotiations is supposed to resume this week, but no date has been set.
The Western powers have questioned Tehran’s determination to salvage the agreement. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Washington would not let Iran drag out the process while continuing to advance its uranium-enrichment programme and that it would pursue other options if diplomacy failed.
The UAE national security adviser met on Monday with Iran’s president in Tehran, a major visit from an Arab Gulf country that has long viewed Iran as a main regional threat.
The visit by Sheikh Tahnoon Bin Zayed Al Nahyan comes as the UAE and Saudi Arabia are both negotiating with Iran to ease bilateral and regional tensions. The Western powers hope that a rapprochement between the regional rivals might push Iran to take a more realistic approach to the nuclear negotiations.
Tahnoon first met with Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. Iranian state television quoted Shamkhani as saying that “warm and friendly” relations between the two countries remain a priority and that they should not be affected by other nations, likely a reference to the US and Israel.
Tahnoon later met with Raisi, and a statement from the Iranian presidency quoted Raisi as welcoming “improved ties with the Emirates,” including on economic issues. “There should be no barrier in the relations of the two Muslim nations of Iran and the Emirates,” Raisi said. “They should not be affected by foreigners’ dictation.”
The Iranian presidency quoted Tahnoon as inviting Raisi for a state visit to the UAE. A report by the UAE’s state-run WAM news agency did not mention the invitation but said the two men had “discussed prospects of consolidating bilateral ties and explored an array of issues of common interest.”
Monday marked a series of political visits in the region against the backdrop of the Vienna talks. Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad visited Tehran, and Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed Bin Salman visited Oman on a regional tour.
Oman is the closest Gulf country to Iran, and most communications and mediation efforts with Tehran take place through Muscat.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan travelled to Qatar on Tuesday to strengthen bilateral relations and discuss regional affairs, while Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed Bin Salman also planned to visit Qatar later on Tuesday to discuss bilateral relations, the Iran nuclear talks and regional security.
Sheikh Tahnoon’s brother is Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s crown-prince, who also visited Turkey last week. Tahnoon has also held at least one meeting with the head of the Israeli Mossad Intelligence Service.
Ali Bagheri Kani, the Iranian deputy foreign minister leading the Vienna talks, also recently travelled to the UAE for talks.
These regional manoeuvres are preparations for reviving the nuclear agreement, or, in the worst-case scenario, for the failure of the nuclear deal. It is a high-stakes game, and there is a sense that if Raisi’s government exaggerates its demands and makes conditions difficult for the Biden administration to sign a deal, the collapse of the negotiations will be the most likely scenario.
In this case, Plan B, most likely a military confrontation between Iran and Israel, could lead to unprecedented escalation in the region. The intensity of the regional manoeuvres among the regional powers are being played for high stakes indeed.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.