Mistrust of US underpins revival of Iran N-deal - GulfToday

Mistrust of US underpins revival of Iran N-deal

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Abbas Araghchi (centre), political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, leaves the ‘Grand Hotel Wien’ after the closed-door nuclear talks in Vienna on Friday. Agence France-Presse

Ahead of last Friday’s launch of the fourth round of talks on reviving the nuclear deal with Iran, an unidentified senior US state department official predicted that the return by the US and Iran to the accord is “doable” before Iran’s presidential election in June. He said the US is prepared to re-enter the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and lift sanctions so that Iran is able to enjoy the financial and economic benefits of the 2015 deal from which Donald Trump withdrew in May 2018 and imposed ruinous sanctions.

The official’s remarks were the first positive comments made by a member of the Biden administration since the Vienna talks began. He also claimed President Joe Biden gives this issue high priority. This seems to be a change in tone after more than three months of procrastination although Biden has repeatedly pledged to rejoin the JCPOA.

The official asked, Is it “possible that we’ll see a mutual return to compliance in the next few weeks, or an understanding of a mutual return to compliance? It’s possible, yes. Is it ikely? Only time will tell. Because as I said, this is ultimately a matter of a political decision that needs to be made in Iran” to return to compliance as defined in the JCPOA. According to him, Iran has not said what it will do to return to compliance.

The aim of the official’s briefing — which has been dubbed “lawyerly” — appears to prepare the way to blame Iran if the Vienna talks fail to close the gaps between the sides.

Iran needs to return to enriching uranium with older centrifuges to 3.67 purity in order to create a limited stockpile, export excess uranium and uranium enriched to 20 and 60 per cent, and allow UN experts full access to all sites. Iran is, reportedly, dragging its feet over its installation of advanced centrifuges barred by the deal. This is understandable as it is said the US wants these to be destroyed rather than stored in warehouses. Finally, Iran wants a guarantee that the US will not be able to withdraw from the deal again.

Earlier this month, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghci said the EU-brokered negotiations have been “moving slowly.” This is because Iran, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, signatories of the JCPOA, and the US, which is not, “have started to write texts in some areas.” He said that “we will continue to negotiate until the two sides positions come close to one another.” He revealed that agreement has been reached on the energy sector, automobile manufacture, insurance, and banking although talks continue on most of these issues. He argued sanctions on individuals, including the supreme guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, must also be lifted.

If the Biden team continues to insist on sanctions unacceptable to Tehran, it will blame the failure of the talks on Washington but the tame global media will almost certain accept the US claim that Iran would be responsible.

Iran’s official demand is for the lifting of “all” US sanctions although the US has deemed this is “unacceptable.” Therefore, the success or failure of the Vienna negotiations depends on agreement on how many and what sanctions are to be lifted.

Both the Biden administration and Iran’s moderate faction headed by outgoing President Hassan Rouhani are under strong pressure to kill the JCPOA from respective hardliners who opposed, and continue to reject, the deal. In the US, the anti-Iran camp comprises hawkish legislators, lobbies, and pro-Israeli organisations; in Iran the anti-JCPOA-anti-US camp consists of commanders of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, parliamentarians, and some clerics. In the US, 60 per cent of the public favour the JCPOA; in Iran backing for the deal has fallen to the low 30s.

Members of the Iranian elite and the public do not trust either the US, which abruptly abandoned the deal, or Europe, which did not seriously seek to evade US sanctions in order to provide Iran relief from measures which dramatically cut its oil exports, contracted its economy, and punished Iranians by denying them jobs and essential imported goods, services, and medical supplies. Sanctions have become increasingly harmful as Covid has ravished entire communities.

Unfortunately, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, the champion of the deal, has lost the full confidence and crucial backing of Ayatollah Khamenei, without which Iran would never have signed the JCPOA, adhered to compliance for a full year after its abandonment by the US, and agreed to ongoing negotiations which will require compromises on both sides if the deal is to be revived.

Khamenei is annoyed with Zarif due to the leak of portions of a recorded seven-hour confidential interview with a think tank collecting material on the last decade of the Iranian revolutionary regime. In particular, Zarif frankly and openly criticised the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, and its commander General Qassem Soleimani, for making foreign policy by intervening militarily in the affairs of other countries. Zarif claimed Soleimani rejected the JCPOA and attempted to convince Russia, one of its signatories, to torpedo the deal. Zarif’s criticism of Soleimani crossed a “red line” for many Iranians and particularly for Khamenei. Since his assassination by a US drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020, Soleimani has become a national hero and, even, a saint. Zarif has been obliged to apologise to the Soleimani family for his lack of sensitivity.

Khamenei has lashed out at Zarif, without naming him, by calling his remarks about the military’s influence in politics and foreign affairs a “big mistake.” This assessment has weakened Zarif at a crucial moment in the JCPOA negotiations. At his insistence, Iran refused to talk directly to the US and insist the negotiations take place among the remaining signatories working at one venue and the outlier US contributing from another site via a European Union mediator.

This modus operandi shamed and humiliated the US for its abandonment of the deal.

Khamenei’s criticism could very well veto Zarif as a presidential candidate nominated by the moderate camp, particularly if there is little progress in the Vienna talks or they collapse.

A former revolutionary himself, Zarif has, since 2003, been an advocate of a “Grand Bargain,” a plan to resolve all issues between Iran and the US, where he received his university education. Zarif and his US counterpart, John Kerry, played major roles in the formulation of the JCPOA, signed in mid-2015 and implemented in mid-January 2016. As number two in the Obama administration, Biden also has a stake in reviving its major international accomplishment as does Khamenei, who is the ultimate authority in Iran.

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Majority of US voters support the deal with Iran

US presidential candidate Joe Biden promised to return to the 2015 agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions. Instead, President Biden sticks to the dangerous and destructive policy dictated by Donald Trump who withdrew from the deal in 2018 and slapped 1,500 punitive sanctions on Iran.

Biden hesitates although 54 per cent of registered US voters support a deal while only 20 per cent oppose; among Biden’s Democrats the number is 70 per cent backers and six per cent opponents; among independents 50 per cent support and 30 per cent do not; and 41 per cent of Republicans are in favour against 35 who are not.

Since Biden’s own positive rating is currently a low 41 per cent against 56 per cent negative rating, it would seem it would behove him to re-enter the deal. The main obstacle is Tehran’s insistence that the US must lift Trump’s designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRG) as a “foreign terrorist organisation,” making the IRG the world’s sole national army to join a host of armed non-state actors.

The text, a somewhat amended version of the original document, has been ready for months and awaits finalisation. Why then is Biden procrastinating and prevaricating? He faces stiff opposition from domestic anti-Iran lobbyists and legislators and Israel where the government rejects the deal. In both countries military and intelligence experts are, however, in favour. They hold, correctly, that Tehran has made great strides in developing both nuclear expertise and output since Trump pulled out, prompting Iran to gradually reduce its adherence in retaliation.

Instead of being limited to 3.67 uranium enrichment Iran has 43 kilograms of 60 per cent enriched uranium: this is a few steps away from the 90 per cent needed for a bomb. Instead of having a 300 kilogram stockpile of 3.67 enriched uranium, Iran has a stock 18 times larger of uranium enriched above the 3.67 per cent level permitted. Instead of carrying out enrichment with old, approved centrifuges, Iran has employed advanced centrifuges.

Instead of abiding by the stringent monitoring regime put in place by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has been slipping surveillance. Until Iran began to breach the regulatory regime, it was the toughest on earth.

Nevertheless, Iran has pledged to revert to the deal once the US re-enters and to halt enrichment above 3.67 per cent, export all but 300 kilogrammes of the permitted 3.67 per cent of material in its stockpile, revert to old centrifuges which have been warehoused, and re-engage fully with the IAEA monitoring effort.

Opponents of the deal argue its “sunset clauses” will expire by 2031, thereby ending restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities. This may be addressed in the new deal.

However, they also contend it fails to curb in Iran’s ballistic missile programme and sup- port for Lebanon’s Hizbollah, Yemeni Houthi rebels, Iraqi Shia militias and the Syrian government.

Since these issues are outside the purview of the 2015 deal, Iran rightly rejects including them in its successor. Tehran has also made it clear that they can be discussed directly with the US once Biden re-joins the deal and sanctions are lifted.

After months of trying to get the external issues incorporated into the nuclear deal, the Biden administration conceded that this is impossible.

On April 29th this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign had failed and “produced a more dangerous nuclear programme” while Iran stepped up involvement in regional affairs. These post-Ukraine war remarks suggested that the Biden administration was ready to return to the deal.

However, the administration continues to blow hot at one moment and cold another. Last week Washington may have blown up the deal. At the 35-member IAEA board of governors meeting in Vienna the US — along with acolytes Britain, France, and Germany — secured the adoption of a resolution critical of Iran over its inability or refusal to account for traces of nuclear material at three undeclared sites found by IAEA monitors in 2019 and 2020.

The resolution, which received 30 votes in favour — with Iran and Russia voting against and India, China and Libya abstaining — urges Iran to co-operate “without delay” with inspectors after IAEA director Rafael Grossi reported he had not received a “technically credible” explanation for the presence of particles.

Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi pointed out that uranium “contamination” was possible “in a country as vast as Iran.” He also suggested “human sabotage” by Israel which is blamed for repeated attacks on Iranian nuclear sites and assassinations of Iranian scientists.

Iranian officials are suspicious due to the fact that former Israeli Prime Minister Bin- yamin Netanyahu instigated visits by IAEA inspectors to one of the three contaminate sites at the village of Turquzabad near Tehran. IAEA monitors took soil samples and concluded that there were “traces of radioactive material” at the location which may have been used for storage as there were no signs of processing. How did Netanyahu know there were samples at this site?

Although the IAEA still has more than 40 cameras which will continue to operate at Iran’s enrichment facilities, Grossi stated Tehran’s action mounted to a “serious challenge.” He warned that in three or four weeks the agency would be unable to provide “continuity of knowledge” about Iran’s activities. “This could be a fatal blow” to negotiations over the nuclear deal, he stated.

He also warned that Iran is “just a few weeks” away from having enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb. However, Iran halted work on weaponisation in 2003 and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly stated that Iran will not manufacture nuclear weapons as they are prohibited by Islam.

Kelsey Davenport of the “independent” Washington-based Arms Control Association told the BBC that in ten days or less Iran could transform its current stock of 60 per cent enriched uranium into the 90 per cent required for weapons. She said, however, that manufacturing bombs would require one or two years.

If Biden continues dithering the deal could die, further destabilising an already unstable region.

Michael Jansen, Political Correspondent

12 Jun 2022