On Sunday, the Israeli media reported that American B-52 bombers had entered Israeli airspace on their way to the Gulf. This was seen as a new warning to Iran amid regional military escalations. American bombers had been here only a few months before, but this time they arrived only a day after negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the US began to falter.
The deal, first signed in 2015, was repealed by former US president Donald Trump in 2018. A year and a half after negotiations to revive it started in Vienna, all parties had been expecting an agreement to be concluded within days when news of military escalation in the Gulf dampened the general spirit.
After the draft agreement presented to both parties by the EU on 8 August, US sources had boasted of Iran making positive concessions. Despite Tehran denying this, sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Iranians were dropping the demand to remove all sanctions (as opposed to JCPOA-related ones) and to knock the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) off the US list of terrorist organisations – as long as the US turned a blind eye to IRGC-affiliated businesses. But this Friday a State Department spokesperson announced that the latest Iranian response to the agreement was “not constructive”.
It seems the issue is the Iranian demand for future guarantees. The Americans said they could not guarantee that the next president would not withdraw from the deal, committing only to the two years remaining in President Joe Biden’s term, though they also said that sanctions lifted or other provisions could be in place for five years.
Another point of contention is the Iranian demand that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should drop its investigations of previous Iranian nuclear activities. The Americans were clear on that: IAEA issues are not part of the original JCPOA agreement, and the point is that Tehran should stop its nuclear activities in return for the lifting of the relevant sanctions.
Meanwhile Israel has been frantically trying to dissuade the American side from signing the deal, though American officials assured their Israeli allies that signing would not help the Iranians acquire a nuclear weapon. Israeli officials raised the issue of the advanced centrifuges Iran recently deployed, which raised the level of uranium purity close enough to produce nuclear bomb material.
Russia, which along with China is part of the Vienna negotiations, offered to have these centrifuges along with enriched uranium transferred to Moscow, though the EU parties have no problem with the centrifuges remaining in Iran under constant IAEA supervision.
No party has conceded that the talks failed, but the Europeans see their draft agreement as the last chance to revive the nuclear deal. Suzanne DiMaggio, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told National Public Radio (NPR) this week that the “US and European sides believe the room for compromise has been exhausted,” insisting that “what is on the table” is the farthest they can go, while the latest Iranian response continued to push the envelope.
The Israeli daily Haaretz quoted an Israeli official with “knowledge of the talks” as saying that despite Israeli efforts, “even though the agreement seems to be dying, the announcement of its death is still far away. There are too many parties interested in this deal, and they will try to revive it in the upcoming period”.
Yet the prospect is gloomy in contrast to the optimism of a few days ago. The recent incident in the Gulf waters involving an Iranian destroyer and self-steered American boats was followed by Iran stepping up its defence preparations, an indication of rising tensions with the US and Israel.
The Iranian media reported that the country “has equipped 51 of its cities with civil defence systems and boosted readiness at air defences to thwart any possible foreign attack”. Iran’s Deputy Defence Minister Brigadier General Mehdi Farahisaid said “the civil defence equipment will enable Iran to identify and monitor threats by using round-the-clock software according to the type of the threat and risk.” The Iranian Mehr news agency quoted Brigadier General Qader Rahimzadeh, commander of Iran’s air defence headquarters, as saying that readiness was at its highest among his forces: “The country’s airspace today is at its safest for licensed flights and its most insecure for would-be aggressors.”
Yet the possibility of full-scale war in the Gulf looks less likely even if the Vienna talks fail. A semi-official source from the Arab Gulf told the Weekly that “nobody wants war in the region” even if the Israelis are worried about Iran’s nuclear capabilities. “The Americans traditionally will not open more than one front at a time,” he added, referring to the current war in Ukraine in which they are indirectly involved.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.