Much of the world is growing increasingly impatient as Iran plays for time on the diplomatic front while it forges ahead towards full nuclear capability. Armed intervention to deter its activities becomes ever more likely.
On December 11 Britain hosted a two-day meeting of the G7 group of industrialized nations in its northern port city of Liverpool. “We need to defend ourselves against the growing threats from hostile actors,” said UK foreign secretary Liz Truss, as she opened the meeting of foreign ministers from the UK, US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.
The main agenda item was the imminent threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, but the progress, or lack of it, on reviving the Iran nuclear deal was also a major topic of discussion. Truss met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken ahead of the G7 meeting, and they agreed on the need for Iran to engage meaningfully on a nuclear deal. When the subject of Iran surfaced, Annalena Baerbock, the German foreign minister, warned that the talks in Vienna, where the seventh round of discussions on reinstating the 2015 nuclear deal were taking place, were close to collapsing. To reporters she said that there was no progress in sight, and that “time is running out”.
On December 14 the group known as the E3 (the UK, France and Germany), met at the UN in New York, and issued a statement. “Iran’s nuclear program,” it ran, “has never been more advanced than it is today. This nuclear escalation is undermining international peace and security and the global non-proliferation system…Iran’s continued nuclear escalation means that we are rapidly reaching the end of the road.”
To cut to the chase: Iran is determined to acquire a nuclear arsenal; the West is determined that it shall not. The West will do everything possible to thwart Iran’s ambitions, short of using armed force. On the other hand, in the final analysis armed force is precisely what Israel is prepared to employ against Iran’s nuclear facilities, and there are signs that the US could endorse such action, or even facilitate it. However a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities could provide only a temporary disruption. If it failed to deter, or to bring Iran into compliance with UN restrictions on nuclear development, further armed attacks would be necessary.
That is the unvarnished truth of the situation as the latest rounds of talks with Iran reach virtual stalemate in Vienna. While the G7 meeting was in progress, Truss said: “This is the last chance for Iran to come to the negotiating table with a serious resolution to this issue, which has to be agreeing the terms of the JCPOA (the acronym for the 2015 nuclear accord)… We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.”
On the same day Iran’s top negotiator in Vienna, Ali Bagheri Kani, alleged that European countries – thus explicitly excluding Iran-supporting Russia and China – had offered no constructive proposals to help to revive the nuclear deal. “European parties fail to come up with any initiatives to resolve differences over the removal of sanctions,” he said.
His choice of words is significant. Iran’s tactic is to turn the purpose of the talks on its head. Vienna is an attempt to bring Iran back into restricting the development of its nuclear facilities, especially to prevent it acquiring the capacity to manufacture nuclear weaponry. Iran’s emphasis is wholly on the removal of all sanctions imposed by the UN, the EU and the US, whether related to the nuclear deal or not. This is to be its price for re-entering the JCPOA, or an amended version of it.
As the G7 meeting convened in the UK, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, was reported as saying that traces of nuclear material had been discovered in places in Iran that have not been declared before. In addition an Iranian production facility in Karaj making centrifuge parts had had no cameras in place since June, when it suffered a sabotage attack. The agency was trying to come to an agreement with Iran on both issues.
At about the same time Israel’s defense minister Benny Gantz told reporters that he had instructed the IDF to prepare a strike against Iran. He said he was confident that if diplomacy failed to break the stalemate, the US would itself start taking the military option more seriously. Media reports claim that in meetings with Blinken and US defense secretary Lloyd Austin, Gantz actually presented a timeline for an Israeli attack on Iran, and that no attempt was made to dissuade him.
Asked by reporters if the US was discussing military options should the Vienna talks fail, Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, replied: “I wouldn’t want to speak to what we might be contemplating if diplomacy… isn’t viable in the near term. But we are discussing those alternatives. We are discussing those options with our close partners, with our close allies, and that includes with the Israelis. We have already had good discussions with the Israelis about the path forward, and how we can work together to ensure that Iran is never able to acquire a nuclear weapon.”
In her statement summing up the results of the G7 meeting that she had hosted, Truss said: “We welcomed the resumption of negotiations in Vienna on restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and reiterated that Iran must stop its nuclear escalation and seize the opportunity now to conclude a deal, while this is still possible.”
What could, or should, follow if Iran failed to do just that was left unsaid.