Analysis: What if there is no Iran deal?

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 7 Jun 2022

The effects of the failure of the Iran-US nuclear talks may go far beyond the waves of conflicts currently reverberating across the region.

What if there is no Iran deal
Head of Iran s Permanent Mission to International Organisations in Vienna, Mohammad Reza Ghaebi attends the quarterly IAEA meeting in Vienna (photos: AFP)

 

Talks on the revival of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal may be stumbling after several weeks hiatus, threatening the collapse of an agreement that could restrain the Islamic Republic from advances in its nuclear programme.

The talks seem to have become a casualty of the war in Ukraine, which is forcing the administration of US President Joe Biden to review its Middle East policies to meet challenges from Russia and China to US leadership in the region.

Speculation over the closure of the negotiations has come on the heel of reports of the honeymoon that the Biden administration has started to enjoy with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and other key Arab countries following a hiccup in the relationship over a variety of disputes.

The complete collapse of the Iran nuclear talks, however, could potentially trigger cascading risks across the region.

Talks on Iran’s nuclear programme have been swinging back and forth for more than a year, haunting international efforts to revive a deal that would prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring nuclear weapons and softening the sanctions on Tehran.

The nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), limited Iran’s nuclear programme while granting the country billions of dollars in sanctions relief. Former US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018 and reimposed biting sanctions on Iran.

The talks to revive the deal under Biden broke off in March with no agreement over the terms of a new deal and both parties putting the onus on the other to take the decision to finalise an agreement.

While Tehran has set conditions that include no new sanctions, guarantees by the US Congress not to quit any new deal, and the sanctions lifted under the reinstated deal not being reimposed, Washington has balked at these requests, leading to an impasse in the negotiations.

The talks have also stalled over a number of issues including a US terror designation against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and illicit demands from Israel and some Arab Gulf countries to include Iran’s missile and drone programmes in the deal.

The question now is whether the high-water mark of a nuclear deal has been reached, or if all this is part of a real-world negotiation strategy to outwit and outmanoeuvre Iran in order to get a better one.

Several signs have emerged that suggest the negotiations have reached a critical moment and hopes for salvaging the 2015 deal may be fading.

One sign is that the Biden administration, under pressure from Republicans in the US Congress as well as Israel and its regional allies, has become tougher on Iran by refusing to make concessions rejected by Iran’s regional opponents.

Beyond the nuclear deal, Biden is also recalibrating Washington’s role in the Middle East, including by reestablishing closer ties with Israel and other regional allies and abandoning his previous intention to downsize the US footprint in the region.

Biden will reportedly visit Riyadh next month and meet Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed bin Salman, abandoning a campaign pledge to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah” in the wake of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashogji.

The trip has prioritised Biden’s need to bring oil prices down by securing a Saudi pledge to pump more oil and thereby punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine over his stand on human rights.

A meeting with the leaders of nine Arab countries which was also reported to take place during the tour will underscore a more anti-Iran stance by Biden.

A second indicator that the negotiations with Iran have reached a critical point are the closer ties being built between the UAE and Israel, the latest effort by the two countries to use their historic normalisation deal in 2020 to reorient the regional geopolitical landscape.

The UAE last week penned a multi-billion-dollar free-trade agreement with Israel with a declared target of increasing annual bilateral trade to more than $10 billion over the next five years.

The agreement, the largest ever between Israel and any Arab country, comes a few days after the UAE signed a $10 billion investment partnership with Egypt and Jordan that will focus on food security and industrial integration in the region.

A third signal of the fragility of the negotiations with Iran came in the shape of the massive military drills that the Israeli army conducted in Cyprus last month.

The exercise, bringing thousands of troops by air and sea to the Mediterranean island, was designed to simulate a military ground offensive deep inside Lebanon in a potential war against the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah, Iran’s main regional ally.

A fourth sign is Israel’s proposal to the Biden administration and the E3 group of Britain, France, and Germany to offer Tehran a new deal in which economic sanctions would be lifted, but not the restrictions on its nuclear programme.

The proposal is aimed at tightly restricting Iran’s nuclear activities to prevent it from benefiting from the so-called “sunset clauses” in the JCPOA, which from 2025 onwards would free the Iranians of most of the constraints on their nuclear programme.

Meanwhile, the deadlock in the talks in Vienna over the deal has raised concerns that the failure to revive the Iran nuclear accord could pose much greater danger amid an already turbulent backdrop of regional conflicts and exacerbated global tensions over Ukraine.

This conclusion is shared by members of the Israeli intelligence community, who told the Jerusalem Post last week that not reviving the Iran nuclear deal could result in more imminent nuclear danger for Israel and its allies.

Yet, the anti-Iran camp seems to be betting on keeping the sanctions against Iran in place in order to force the Islamic Republic to make concessions. This line of thinking assumes that continuing with Trump’s “maximum pressure” on Iran, which has been triggering economic protests across the country, will eventually bring Iran to its knees.

But so far Iran’s leaders seem to be unwavering, at least in public. They have warned that they will resist efforts by the US and the E3 group to condemn Iran at this week’s board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The nuclear watchdog has said that Iran has not clarified questions about the presence of nuclear material found at three undeclared sites.

At any rate, a failure to revive the Iran nuclear deal could result in more imminent nuclear danger to US allies in the region, with Iran said to be only weeks away from being able to enrich uranium to levels of around 90 per cent, which is what is required to build a nuclear weapon.

On the ground, Iran has stockpiled a large quantity of enriched uranium and nearly 20,000 centrifuges that the IAEA has estimated to be more than 18 times the limit laid down in Tehran’s 2015 deal with the world powers.

Western intelligence sources say that this is enough to create eight to 10 bombs if Iran decided to rush to make a bomb without a deal in place. It would need two to three months before it had enough weapon-ready uranium to build its first nuclear weapon.

Many analysts doubt that a new deal could reverse Iran’s advances in uranium enrichment, a process that could produce fuel for bombs, while others question if the country’s enemies are capable of delivering lasting damage to Tehran’s nuclear facilities.

Iran’s reaction to the failure to conclude a new deal could also include more interventions in the region, either directly or through proxies it is already using to boost its regional influence and power, with potential scenarios emerging in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.

By all accounts, the whole thing about Iran’s nuclear programme seems to be messy and the collapse of the talks on a new deal would herald a new era in the Middle East that would be fraught with uncertainty and possibly chaos. This scenario is plausible enough that should make policymakers worry about its consequences.

“For any mistake made by the enemy, we will raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground by the order of the supreme leader,” warned Iran’s army ground forces’ commander Kiumars Heydari on Tuesday.

This could be dismissed as usual Iranian bombast, but escalation scenarios are plausible enough that should make policymakers worry about its consequences.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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