Iran and the world powers signatory to the Iran nuclear deal could be heading for a showdown after recent indirect talks in Doha to restore the deal ended without progress in settling remaining differences.
Over the past few days, the US and EU have sought to give new impetus to the negotiations to revive the nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which would lift the sanctions on Tehran and thus increase the Iranian production of oil for global markets.
This would help to reduce energy prices and prevent the global economy from entering a state of stagnation.
But the resumption of the negotiations also has more important dimensions, foremost among which is preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and opening the door to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
In a joint statement, Germany, France, and the UK warned that Iran was testing ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.
“Only a few days ago, Iran conducted another test of a space launch vehicle, which contains dual-use technology that can be used to construct long-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles,” the statement said.
While the US and its European partners say that Iran has only a small window of opportunity to make up its mind and accept Western conditions for reviving the nuclear deal, Tehran has showed cautious optimism and said that the Doha negotiations were “positive” and that there are other upcoming rounds.
Iranian Chief Nuclear Negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani said that the time of the new round of talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal was being finalised, according to Iran’s official IRNA news agency.
“The negotiations in Doha took place within a pre-determined framework. The time and venue of the next negotiations are being finalised in the exchanges” between Iran and the EU, he said.
He did not specify whether the next round of talks would take place in the format of Iran and the P4+1 group of Britain, China, France, Russia plus Germany, or whether it would be held indirectly between Iran and the US.
Tehran and Washington held indirect talks last week in Doha, with the mediation of EU coordinator Enrique Mora, to address their differences over the revival of the nuclear deal.
The Doha talks did not achieve results, but Iranian Ambassador to the UN Majid Takht-Ravanchi said an agreement was “not out of reach.” However, he added that this would require significant changes in US policy, specifically regarding the imposition of sanctions.
He also said that guarantees were needed that the US would not leave the nuclear deal again as it had under former US president Donald Trump in 2018.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said that the Doha talks were a step forward despite the fact that no progress was made on Iran’s central demand that the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be removed from US sanctions and its list of foreign terrorist organisations.
In a telephone conversation with his French counterpart Catherine Colonna, Abdollahian said the US had “failed to be constructive” in the latest round of the talks, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Monday.
Though describing the talks on 29-30 June in Doha as positive, Abdollahian said that “we should wait and see how the American side will seek to use the opportunity of diplomacy.”
“We maintain that reiterating previous positions should not replace a political initiative,” he added, saying that Iran was serious about reaching a “good and lasting” agreement and had always presented proposals and ideas in the negotiations.
However, the Western powers were critical of Tehran during the latest round of talks, accusing it of making “maximalist demands.”
“Not only has Iran not taken up the offer on the table, but it has also added yet more issues which fall outside the JCPOA with maximalist and unrealistic demands,” French Ambassador to the UN Nicolas de Rivière said during a special session of the UN Security Council.
Barbara Woodward, the UK envoy, warned Iran that no better deal would be offered than that made at Doha. EU Ambassador to the UN Olof Skoog said that “I am concerned that we might not make it over the finishing line. My message is: seize this opportunity to conclude the deal, based on the text that is on the table. The time to overcome the last outstanding issues, conclude the deal, and fully restore the [agreement] is now.”
Meanwhile, the growing Iranian enrichment and ballistic missile activity is concerning European leaders. “Iran’s nuclear programme has never been more advanced than it is today, and Iran’s nuclear escalation is a threat to international peace and security,” Woodward said.
“At the current enrichment rate, by the end of this year, Iran is likely to have enough enriched material to rapidly produce highly enriched uranium at 90 per cent enrichment for several nuclear devices,” she said. “Iran also continues to develop ballistic missiles in a way that is inconsistent with UN resolutions.”
Despite the Western pressures, Iran does not want to be pushed into accepting the revival of the nuclear agreement under conditions it does not want, on top of which is keeping the Revolutionary Guards on the US sanctions list, a red line to many hardliners in Iran.
There are also voices among conservatives and hardliners in Iran who argue that the country does not need the nuclear deal.
Fars News, which is affiliated to the Revolutionary Guards, reported on Sunday that Iran would earn $36 billion from oil exports in 2022, with or without the revival of the nuclear deal, with the shipments mostly going to China.
It said that Iran could earn as much circumventing US sanctions as it would if it signed a new nuclear agreement to lift them and claimed that not reaching an agreement with the US would make no difference to the country’s oil exports, which it could boost to $50 billion.
Such increased revenue would not only be because of Iran’s ability to circumvent the sanctions, however, since it would mostly be the result of higher oil prices.
Without the US sanctions, Iran’s oil revenues would at least double, as it would be able to export at least two million barrels of oil per day instead of the currently estimated shipments of under one million. The country would also not be forced to offer a $20 to $30 discount per barrel and spend more money to market the sanctioned oil.
Despite Iran’s stance of “no deal, no problem,” the fact is that the revival of the nuclear deal will always be about much more than its economic benefits.
Reviving the nuclear agreement may ease the fears of Iran’s regional neighbours about the possibility of its ability to produce a nuclear weapon within 12 months.
These fears, if reinforced in the absence of a nuclear agreement, could lead to an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites, opening up a Pandora’s Box in the Middle East and setting Iran back years in its regional and international relations.
The recent restrictions Tehran placed on UN weapons inspectors in the country, as well as its speeding up of uranium enrichment, have injected sudden urgency into the nuclear talks. The Western leaders will have to take decisive steps, including reimposing UN sanctions, in the coming weeks if the UN nuclear inspectorate continues to be unable to carry out its monitoring duties.
Thus, although Iran may not have an immediate economic need to restore the nuclear agreement, it may need to revive the deal for strategic reasons. If its nuclear programme remains outside the monitoring of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the current US administration or future US administrations may agree with Israel that a pre-emptive strike on it is inevitable.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.