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Will 2022 Bring A Revived Iran Nuclear Deal, Or A Hard-Line Plan B? – Analysis

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By Golnaz Esfandiari*

(RFE/RL) — The year 2022 could see an escalation of tensions between Iran and the United States if nuclear talks aimed at reviving the stalled 2015 nuclear deal collapse.

While analyst believe an agreement is still reachable as ongoing negotiations are entered into the new calendar, the United States and EU countries have warned that there are only “weeks” left to salvage the agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA).

The landmark accord, which significantly limited Tehran’s nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief, unraveled after 2018 when then-U.S. President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of the deal and reimposed crippling economic sanctions on Iran.

A year later, considering the deal null and void without the participation of a major signatory, even as EU countries tried to keep it alive, Tehran started gradually ramping up nuclear activities that were limited by the JCPOA. In past months, the country has enriched uranium at 60 percent, an unprecedented level for a country without a nuclear weapons program, the head of the UN’s nuclear agency, Rafael Grossi, has said.

Iran’s nuclear advances have added greater urgency to efforts to return to the deal, which President Joe Biden has promised to rejoin if Tehran returns to full compliance. But with the United States — which is participating indirectly in the negotiations due to Tehran’s refusal to sit at the table with Washington — criticizing Tehran’s demands for returning to the deal as “unrealistic,” observers are considering what a Plan B might be.

Since the resumption of the talks in late November after a five-month hiatus due to the election of Iran’s hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi, Tehran has taken a tough line. Raisi’s new chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri-Kani, shares his president’s criticism of the JCPOA and has walked back compromises made during the previous six rounds of talks while calling for the lifting of all sanctions, including those that are not related to the nuclear deal, as well as guarantees that no U.S. future administration will exit the deal.

Despite the difficulties, Western countries believe the nuclear deal still remains the best option to avert a crisis. But the United States. has warned that the window of opportunity is closing, and observers suggest Tehran could soon face alternative approaches that range from more pressure to an interim deal or even military action.

‘Narrow Pathway’ For Return To Deal

Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, says there is still a “narrow pathway” for mutual compliance with the 2015 deal, adding that it requires flexibility on both sides and a pragmatic approach by Tehran.

“The new Iranian negotiating team probably learned that the ceiling and the floor negotiated by its predecessor was real and not the result of eagerness and naivete,” Vaez told RFE/RL.

“With its exponential nuclear advancements, Iran is already in its Plan B,” Vaez added. “The question is whether it is still serious about Plan A of restoring the JCPOA or not. The world will know the answer to that question in the next few weeks.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that the United States is preparing “alternatives” in case efforts to salvage the deal fail.

“We continue in this hour, on this day, to pursue diplomacy because it remains at this moment the best option, but we are actively engaging with allies and partners on alternatives,” Blinken said on December 14, without elaborating.

Unattractive Alternatives

Experts say the alternatives to the nuclear deal are not attractive.

“None of the alternatives are good, which is, of course, why the West has pushed to revive the deal. But Iran is leaving it little choice,” Henry Rome, a senior Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group in Washington, told RFE/RL. “The most likely no-deal scenario involves a year of escalation with more Iranian nuclear progress, American and European economic sanctions, Israeli and American military threats, and popular protest and economic stagnation in Iran.”

“The U.S. is likely to pull the plug and switch to a much more coercive approach by the end of January, unless either talks make good progress or Iran’s nuclear progress slows down,” Vaez said.

A more forceful approach could include attempts by the United States to cut off Iran’s oil exports to China, which have continued despite U.S. sanctions that prevent Iran from selling its oil, a main source of revenue for the country. Such oil sales, which according to figures by the commodity analytics firm Kpler increased to almost 18 million barrels in November, have helped Tehran survive under sanctions that have crippled its economy.

There have also been talks about an interim deal under which Tehran would suspend its sensitive nuclear activities in exchange of some economic relief. Such an agreement, similar to the approach employed in working out the original JCPOA, could stave off an immediate nuclear crisis and create time and space for a future deal.

But as analyst Rome notes, Tehran is unlikely to go that route for now.

“I am doubtful there will be an interim deal next year,” Rome said. “If Iran is not keen on the economic benefits of the full JCPOA, it’s not clear why it would settle for lesser benefits under a smaller deal.”

If the talks fail, the remaining parties to the JCPOA — Russia, China, and France, Germany, and Britain — could notify the UN Security Council of Iran’s noncompliance and trigger a return to the international sanctions lifted under the accord.

Tehran could also be faced with threats of preemptive military action against its nuclear facilities, which experts have said could delay Iran from reaching a nuclear-weapons capability but won’t provide a lasting solution. While Tehran has denied its nuclear program is intended to develop nuclear weapons, concerns remain, and potential target and archfoe Israel has repeatedly implied it could attack Iran’s nuclear sites.

“The risk of an Israeli attack is the highest it’s been since 2012, although such a strike is not likely and would be a last resort,” said Rome, who also predicts that Iran could face other measures, such as sabotage and cyberattacks. “The so-called ‘gray zone’ conflict between Israel and Iran will only escalate.”

Iranian officials have blamed Israel for a series of incidents in the past year or so, including the November 2020 assassination of the country’s top nuclear scientist. The killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh accelerated Iran’s passage of legislation to ratchet up its nuclear activities and was followed by apparent retaliatory attacks in the Persian Gulf blamed on Iranian forces.

If greater pressure is applied to Tehran, experts say, increased hostilities in the region can be expected.

  • Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with RFE/RL.

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