Hours after the first round of talks to revive Iran’s nuclear deal started in Vienna last week, TV cameras attended a ceremony at the Natanz uranium-enrichment plant in Iran to witness the announcement of an increase in the use of advanced uranium-enrichment centrifuges at the plant.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani officially inaugurated the cascades of 164 IR-6 centrifuges and 30 IR-5 devices at the Natanz plant, none of them allowed under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran’s nuclear agreement with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (the P5+1 group).
The next day an accident disrupted the power grid at Natanz, though with no injuries or risk of nuclear contamination, according to Iranian officials speaking on Sunday. They added that an investigation was ongoing to decide the cause.
A mysterious explosion in July last year also damaged Natanz’s advanced centrifuge facility, and Tehran later described the incident as sabotage, blaming Israel. The same facility was first targeted in 2007 by the Stuxnet computer virus, which scrambled computer code used in the plant and led to the destruction of hundreds of centrifuges, among other damage. The cyber-campaign was thought to have been launched by Israel and the US.
In deciding to restart the uranium enrichment at Natanz, it seems that Iran meant to strengthen its bargaining position in the Vienna talks by adding to the intentional violations of the JCPOA ahead of finalising the framework for steps to revive the deal. The first round of talks was described as “positive and constructive” by all sides involved, including the Americans.
There are no direct talks between the Iranian and American delegations at the talks, however, and the European signatories to the deal have had to carry proposals between them. The stumbling block is the Iranian insistence that the US lift all its sanctions against Iran before Tehran returns to full compliance with the deal. For the Americans, this is a non-starter, and US President Joe Biden already faces internal opposition in Congress and other quarters not to “give in” to the Iranians.
The Vienna talks are focused on reaching a framework for the US to rejoin the nuclear deal, from which former president Donald Trump withdrew in 2018. The Trump administration wanted to renegotiate a new deal that would include curbing Iran’s missile programme and addressing its support for militant groups and interference in the internal affairs of its Gulf neighbours.
The Biden administration wants to rejoin the nuclear deal as it considers it to be the best way to stop Iranian nuclear activity and increase the gap that would need to be filled before Iran could produce military-grade uranium.
Iran has a long way to go before it can gain the capability to make a nuclear warhead. But it has been enriching uranium to more than four times the purity agreed in the 2015 JCPOA deal, and it is now enriching it to 20 per cent. It is also increasing the amount of enriched uranium it holds and is enhancing its centrifuges. It recently limited the monitoring powers of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Iran.
The framework under negotiation in Vienna includes Iran’s reversing all this in return for the US lifting sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear activity. However, Iran wants to see all the US sanctions lifted, something the Biden administration cannot agree to.
There are more than 1,500 sanctions against Iran, and some of them are related to its support for terrorism or its ballistic missiles development. The Biden administration needs to keep these as leverage for later negotiating separate agreements with Tehran with regard to Israeli and Gulf concerns. Moreover, when Trump decided to withdraw from the nuclear deal, he changed many of the sanctions relating to Iran’s nuclear activities to ones relating to terrorism or missiles or other categories.
The US is offering to unfreeze some Iranian assets abroad and issue more exemptions so that Tehran can export more oil. The initial US offer was proposed during backchannel talks some weeks ago to unfreeze more than $1 billion of Iranian assets held in South Korea. Tehran refused the offer and asked for the unfreezing of all assets abroad instead. But this would mean more than $30 billion in assets, and the US would not accept that demand. A compromise could be reached in Vienna.
In a sign of positivity in the talks, a South Korean oil-tanker that had been held for months by Iran was freed early on Friday, and Seoul announced that the country’s prime minister would visit Tehran soon. The dispute over billions of dollars in payments to Iran seized by Seoul will likely be discussed.
The timing of steps taken by the US and Iran is another issue under discussion in Vienna. The Iranians want to “suspend” some of the actions they have taken recently for a period of time until the agreed lifting of the US sanctions is verified. But the US will need full Iranian compliance synchronised with the measures that they take.
The mood on the American side is that “we are not in a hurry,” and this puts some pressure on the Iranians, who will hold presidential elections in June and want a revival of the nuclear deal before they happen. The Americans say they are ready to negotiate with whoever represents Iran after the elections have taken place.
Israel is the more anxious party, as it sees the Biden administration’s approach as dangerous and one that gives Tehran unwarranted leverage. Concerns are also rising in the Gulf that the end of the US policy of applying “maximum pressure” on Tehran could complicate regional hot spots.
The Yemen conflict is not showing any signs of abating, for example, and Iranian-backed Houthi militias are not responding to Saudi calls for a negotiated settlement and an end to the war in the country. Other groups linked to Iran in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region might feel emboldened by the rehabilitation of Iran.
From the way things are going, the Vienna talks might take longer than first thought. Dealing with regional issues involving Iran, from Iraq to Yemen, could well be deferred over a long stretch.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly