By Arab News
By Osama Al-Sharif*
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors on Monday began a weeklong meeting in Vienna that is expected to censure Iran for failing to answer questions regarding its suspected undeclared nuclear sites and activities, which have raised concerns that the regime’s stockpiles of enriched uranium have reached critical levels.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has warned that his country will not hesitate to take immediate action if the UN nuclear watchdog rebukes his country. Needless to say, the already-stalled nuclear talks face the prospect of total collapse if either party decides to take the matter to the brink.
Certainly, the mood is gloomy, especially now that the talks have been suspended for more than a month, with a number of officials expressing their doubts over an imminent deal. US negotiator Robert Malley said last week that the prospects of a return to the Iran nuclear deal are “tenuous at best,” but added that the Biden administration still believes it is in America’s national security interest to try to salvage the 2015 agreement.
Top EU diplomat Josep Borrell on Saturday said the possibility of striking a deal and returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was “shrinking.” The Russian envoy to the Vienna talks was also not optimistic. But even as the parties mull an alternative to reaching a deal, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told the head of the IAEA last week that, while Tel Aviv still prefers diplomacy, it reserves the right to self-defense and to take action against Iran in order to block its nuclear program. He urged the board of governors of the UN watchdog to take action against Tehran in their meeting this week.
Israel has carried out war games in recent weeks to simulate the launch of massive aerial strikes against Iranian targets. And Israeli officials have been engaging with their American counterparts over the available options in case the nuclear deal talks fall through.
But despite all the tension and pessimism hovering over Vienna and Tehran, diplomacy seems to be the only realistic conclusion to more than a year of negotiations. In fact, those close to the talks confirm that the parties have agreed on all relevant technical details to revive the agreement. What is standing in the way are the two main conditions that Tehran has been insisting on: The removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from America’s terrorist list and a guarantee that America will not walk away from the deal in the future. President Joe Biden is unwilling to approve the first and unable to sanction the second.
The removal of the IRGC from America’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations would divide Congress even further. The Republicans are already opposed to reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. Israel, on the other hand, has made it clear that it will not tolerate giving the IRGC a free pass.
As to the second condition, Biden cannot give an assurance that his successor will honor the deal. The nuclear agreement is not a treaty that Congress must approve; not that it would be adopted if it did ever get to the floor.
While Iran has been insisting on the two conditions, diplomats have been trying to find a way out. One suggestion that seems to be gaining support is to conclude an interim deal that would return Iran to the agreement, allow for full IAEA inspections and remove US oil sanctions and others related to Tehran’s nuclear activities, while keeping Iran’s two conditions on hold — for now.
The need for a deal has become more urgent for all parties in light of the Russian war in Ukraine. The US and Europe want to free up access to Iranian oil in a bid to calm the energy markets and bring prices down. That is a must for Biden and the Democrats as they prepare for the November midterm elections, in which gas prices will play a pivotal role. For European countries, Iranian oil should alleviate the shortages resulting from their boycott of Russian supplies. And for cash-strapped Iran, it would help it address domestic protests over inflation and deteriorating public services.
The war in Ukraine has changed the dynamics of the Vienna talks for all, including Israel. Bennett’s coalition government is on shaky ground and may collapse at any moment. An uncalculated military adventure is too risky even for a maverick premier seeking to salvage his political career. The US is definitely not in the mood to take its eyes off Russia in Ukraine by waging a new war in the Middle East.
As for Russia, while releasing Iranian oil in the international markets would do it harm, the Kremlin may be looking at the bigger picture, where a strong and stable Iran can play a more active role in supporting Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western alliance. Moscow does not want to appear to be the party preventing Tehran from breaking free of biting US sanctions.
So, regardless of what the IAEA meeting does with regard to censuring Iran — and in spite of all the pessimism — a deal may still be reached in the coming weeks. An interim agreement would save face and give each party what it wants. The leaders can then go back to their constituents and say that, as an interim deal, they can always back off. Despite all the rhetoric, no one really wants to ignite another war.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010