Iran and the Western countries are trying to prepare the ground for the resumption of the talks on Iran’s nuclear programme, suspended since June because of the Iranian presidential elections.
While European diplomatic sources say there is no clear timetable for the resumption of the negotiations yet, low-level talks are expected to begin over the next few weeks.
No one expects an easy ride, as the talks will not start from where they left off. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi will not show the flexibility shown by the previous Iranian administration, and the developments in Afghanistan have put US foreign policy in an unflattering light.
The Biden administration in the US has suffered a humiliating and costly withdrawal from Afghanistan, and in addition to US military casualties during the withdrawal, there is a rift between Washington and its European allies because of the manner of the withdrawal.
The European capitals found the date and manner of this difficult to deal with, leaving thousands of their nationals stuck in Afghanistan.
The developments in Afghanistan may play a role in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and the hasty way in which the US got out of Afghanistan could put the Biden administration under internal pressure, especially from the Republican Party.
Crucial midterm elections for the US Congress take place in 2022, and after the Afghan crisis, the last thing US President Joe Biden wants is to appear weak on another foreign policy issue, especially regarding Iran.
Prior to the developments in Afghanistan, the issues that will likely decide the Congressional elections were related to Covid-19, the economy and the Chinese challenge to the US. Now, foreign policy will occupy a prominent place in the election debate because of its impact on America’s international standing and role on the world stage.
Any concession on the Iranian nuclear dossier will put the Biden administration under pressure, especially after the talks held with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Washington last week, in which Biden promised to use options other than the diplomatic one if negotiations with Iran falter.
But Washington may also find itself in need of a possible Iranian role in the future to mediate with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Tehran has long-standing relations with the Taliban leaders. It is a border country with Afghanistan, and the West wants it to play a role in preventing a new migrant crisis.
This may open the door to more Western flexibility in the nuclear negotiations.
In a sign that Tehran will push back against Biden’s tough stand, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei slammed the Biden administration in a series of tweets after the US president said he might consider “other measures” should nuclear diplomacy with Tehran fail.
Khamenei accused the US president of making the same demands as his predecessor former president Donald Trump in the talks to revive the nuclear deal.
The multilateral deal that gave Iran relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear programme was torpedoed by Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from it in 2018.
“America’s current administration is no different from the previous one, because what it demands from Iran on the nuclear issue is different in words, but the same thing that Trump demanded,” Khamenei said, quoted on his official Website.
“The Americans truly have no shame on the nuclear issue, and even though they withdrew from the JCPOA... they now talk in a way and make demands as if it was [Iran] that withdrew,” he added, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the official name of the deal.
Khamenei made the remarks during a meeting with Raisi’s newly formed cabinet, where he called on Raisi to “repair” the public’s damaged trust in the government. “It’s a great asset for a government to be able to attract the people’s trust, which has unfortunately been slightly damaged. You must repair this,” he said.
Iran has been hit by protests over the economy and living conditions made worse by punishing US sanctions in recent years. The latest protests were over water shortages that erupted in July in southwest Iran, where according to Iranian media at least four people were killed.
Although the protests have subsided, the Iranian new government faces challenges in addressing the country’s economic problems, and dealing with the energy crisis and inflation. The authorities in Tehran fear that things may get worse if the US does not lift the economic sanctions soon.
Earlier in the week, a top Iranian security official accused Biden of illegally threatening Iran after he told Bennett in the White House talks that he was putting “diplomacy first” to try to rein in Iran’s nuclear programme, but that if negotiations failed, he would be prepared to turn to other unspecified options.
“The emphasis on using ‘other options’… amounts to threatening another country illegally and establishes Iran’s right to reciprocate... against the ‘available options,’” Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, wrote in Hebrew on Twitter.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a recent report that Iran had accelerated its enrichment of uranium, a move raising tensions with the West as both sides seek to resume talks on reviving Tehran’s nuclear deal.
Six rounds of talks between Iran and the powers signatory to the deal, with the US taking part indirectly, were held in Vienna between April and June. But in a sign that the Iranian government is preparing a new negotiating team, the Iranian president has appointed a new director of the country’s nuclear department.
Raisi chose Mohammad Eslami, a 64-year-old civil engineer who previously oversaw the country’s road network, to lead Iran’s civilian nuclear programme and serve as one of several vice-presidents. He succeeds Ali Akbar Salehi, a US-educated scientist who was a key player during the years leading up to Tehran’s now-tattered 2015 landmark nuclear deal.
In 2008, when Eslami served as head of Iran’s Defence Industries Training and Research Institute, the UN sanctioned him for “being engaged in, directly associated with, or providing support for Iran’s proliferation of sensitive nuclear activities or for the development of nuclear weapons delivery systems.”
During the tenure of former president Hassan Rouhani, Eslami served as transport and urban development minister. Before that he worked in Iran’s military industries, most recently as deputy defence minister responsible for research and industry.
When the negotiations resume, it will become more apparent which approach the Iranian administration and the new negotiating team will take. For now, talking tough in Washington and Tehran has few costs, but this will change especially if crises in Yemen and Syria are used as grounds for a proxy skirmish between Tehran and Washington.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly