Washington’s tone this week was distinctly downbeat about the prospects of resuming negotiations with Iran over a renewed nuclear agreement. Secretary of State Antony Blinken talked of “Iran’s refusal to engage in good faith,” and warned: “We are prepared to turn to other options if Iran doesn’t change course.”
But beneath the tough talk are a number of economic and regional political factors that suggest a resumption of diplomacy is still more likely than not. These include Iran’s urgent need to be freed from U.S. sanctions, and President Joe Biden’s hope of avoiding an international nuclear crisis.
Recent U.S. warnings that the time has come for an Iran nuclear agreement are not in line with U.S. efforts to maintain open doors. The rationale behind a deal remains valid for all parties.
Other factors include Iran’s growing relations with Russia and China; and Israel’s less strident opposition to a deal former President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.
” It is in both the United States and Iran’s best interest to restore the agreement,” states Kelsey Davenport (director for nonproliferation at the Arms Control Association, Washington).
” If the talks to reinstate the [deal], fail, there is a greater likelihood that there will be a nuclear emergency, a return of coercive sanctions strategies, and the possibility of military strikes. These likelihoods are not in the best interests of [Iranian President Ebrahim] Raisi and don’t even benefit Biden .”
When it comes to prospects for restarting talks with Tehran aimed at restoring the tattered 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the tone in Washington this week has been decidedly downbeat.
” With Iran’s inability to cooperate in good faith and every day that passes, the runway becomes shorter,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken Wednesday in Washington.
The top U.S. diplomat got into some saber-rattling. “We are ready to turn to alternative options if Iran does not change course”, he said. This means that if Iran continues to advance its nuclear program, and if they don’t get back at the negotiation table.
The U.S. recent warnings that the time has come for an Iran nuclear agreement are not in line with U.S. efforts to maintain open doors. The rationale behind a deal remains valid for all parties.
But beneath the public pessimism and tough talk are a number of economic and regional political factors that suggest a resumption of diplomacy between two arch adversaries – and revival of the 2015 international agreement that temporarily closed Iran’s pathway to a nuclear weapon – is still more likely than not. These factors include the need to relieve Iran from U.S. economic sanctions as well as President Joe Biden’s hope of avoiding an impending nuclear crisis.
A range of factors
But other, more subtle factors favoring diplomacy include Iran’s growing relations with two big regional powers – Russia and China; Iran’s fraught but budding relations with its Persian Gulf neighbors, including Saudi Arabia; and Israel’s less strident opposition to a U.S. return to a deal former President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018. Some analysts believe that Iran is under increasing pressure to resume indirect negotiations with the United States to restore the nuclear agreement.
How do oil prices make it into the list of positive glimmers for diplomacy.
Consider this: China, one of six powers that signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, with Iran, finds its economy hampered by energy shortages and rising prices. Beijing welcomes the return to normalcy in Iran’s oil access.
Some international analysts believe that Iran, an oil producer, would welcome the eased access to Iran’s oil, which would come with a renewed deal. However, Iran, whose economy has been in decline despite modest growth, would also like to see the rise in oil prices. And as Tehran’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation shows, Iran has been placing more economic eggs in China and aiming to have bilateral economic ties flourish.
The alternative serves no one
Yet even with all those factors contributing, the key driver of a return to talks is going to be a decision from the two main protagonists – the U.S. and especially Iran – that the alternative to dialogue serves no one.
“In the end, restoring the agreement serves both the United States and Iran’s best interests,” states Kelsey Davenport (director for non-proliferation policy, Arms Control Association of Washington).
“If talks to restore JCPOA fail the probability of a nuclear crises, the possibility of a return of coercive sanction strategies, and the likelihood that military strikes will occur, all of this goes up,” she says. These likelihoods are not in the best interests of [Iranian President Ebrahim] Raisi and don’t even benefit Biden .”
The Iranian ambassador to the U.N.’s Vienna-based organizations, Kazem Gharibabadi, leaves a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission, in Vienna, Austria, May 25, 2021.
President Biden entered the White House pledging to restore the JCPOA, and earlier this year it appeared that a U.S. return to the deal – and returning Iran to compliance with the deal’s nuclear limitations – was imminent. (Once the U.S. pulled out in 2018, Iran questioned the deal’s validity and eventually returned to prohibited activities. These include the creation of more sophisticated centrifuges that produce a greater purity of high-enriched uranium. This is a crucial step in building a nuclear bomb.
But the sixth round ended without an agreement in April, and Mr. Raisi, a hardliner was elected President in June.
Speculation over a return to Vienna for a seventh round of talks has since followed the path of a roller coaster, with sudden ascents of optimism followed by chutes of despair.
The last two weeks have been a perfect example. Last week Iran’s new foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, said in Moscow that Iran was finalizing diplomatic consultations and “will soon restore our negotiations in Vienna.” But that was followed this week by plummeting hopes and warnings from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, then Secretary Blinken, that the diplomatic window is closing.
U.S. actions vs. words
For some U.S.-Iran analysts, the Biden administration has largely itself to blame for the stalled diplomacy and the failure to coax Iran back to the Vienna table, since the U.S. has never backed up its warnings with any actions. The Americans talk about how diplomacy is becoming less likely, that opportunities are shrinking and that a window is closing. But their behavior is not consistent with what they say. “The Americans continue to speak of the hope for diplomacy, the opportunity is diminishing and the window is closing, but their rhetoric does not match their behavior and their behavior shows that they are really trying very hard for the door to remain open. Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at Washington’s Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
In response, he adds, Iran’s new class of hard-liners is finding a “certain glee” in “turning the superpower into the supplicant” and “trying to tempt Washington into premature sanctions relief.” Those in power in Tehran now are “more risk tolerant and escalation friendly, and more keen to drive a harder bargain.”
This does not mean Tehran won’t eventually return to the Vienna talks and even the JCPOA, Mr. Ben Taleblu says. But he says Iran is demonstrating the objective it intends to pursue if it does return to the negotiating table: “Get more but offer less.”
Still, not all Iranians are on board with the Raisi government’s maximalist approach to nuclear diplomacy.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, the former foreign minister who was former Secretary of State John Kerry’s Iranian counterpart in negotiating the JCPOA, said in a public online chat last week that Iran had an “opportunity” to return to the deal “while keeping its dignity intact,” according to the Amwaj.media website.
Mr. Zarif quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin as saying that Iran would be “turned against” if it declared that it wants to return to the JCPOA. This was something that Mr. Putin said was already taking place.
Iran’s “Eastern orientation”
The role of Russia and China in getting Tehran to “yes” may be crucial. Ben Taleblu points out that Iran has long advocated an “Eastern-orientated” foreign policy to counter Western influence. While that may not be the ultimate goal in the long term, it does point to Iran’s future direction. He also suggests that Tehran might prefer to avoid provoking a crisis by threatening Beijing or Moscow.
“Politically Moscow matters to Iran, but economically Beijing matters much more, and the Iranians can’t easily disregard that right now” given their weak economy, he says.
“The greater access to the Iranian oil market that would accompany a deal would clearly benefit China in a variety of ways,” she says.
“The greater access to the Iranian oil market that would accompany a deal would clearly benefit China in a variety of ways,” she says, adding that “from the big-picture perspective, Chinese interests suffer if there’s an escalation of tensions and conflict in the region.”
Just how much that kind of external factor matters to Tehran remains to be seen.
If the U.S. wants Iran to return to Vienna, it must go beyond mere rhetoric. He’s not the only one who believes that something must happen quickly.
For now, Ms. Davenport believes Iran’s nukes are geared to “increasing Iran’s leverage” during eventual negotiations. She is concerned that Iran’s advances may be irreversible.
” “I worry that Iran’s advances will be more difficult to reverse in the coming months,” she said. And if over that period Iran’s hard-liners continue to play hard to get and meet the Americans with new demands, she says, “that delay could be fatal.”
Staff writer Scott Peterson in London contributed to this report.