By Arab News
By Luke Coffey*
The world is focused on the situation in eastern Europe, but 1,000 kilometers from Kyiv, in Vienna, policymakers are facing another major geopolitical issue: Iran and its nuclear program.
Here, too, Russia plays an important role. Since the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was negotiated and agreed upon in 2015, Moscow has backed Iran by providing diplomatic top cover for Tehran, both at the UN Security Council and through the P5+1 negotiation framework.
In many ways Russia is America’s main interlocutor in the ongoing Vienna indirect talks with Iran. This is where matters get tricky for the US.
With relations between Washington and Moscow at an all-time low after the invasion of Ukraine, it is almost inconceivable that the scheduled talks for next week in Vienna should take place. Frankly speaking, the Biden administration should pull the plug and restore the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign.
However, this is unlikely to happen. One of Joe Biden’s top foreign policy objectives during the 2020 presidential campaign was securing a new nuclear deal with Iran. Both the Iranians and the Russians know that the Biden administration is desperate for a deal. In recent months Iran has continued to fool the White House by suggesting that a new agreement is imminent, without following through with specific plans. This has allowed Iran and its proxies to get away with drone strikes against US forces, missile attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the disruption of international shipping in the Gulf.
Tehran knows that with even the faintest glimmer of hope for a new nuclear deal, the Biden administration will do nothing to risk upsetting Tehran.
However, the talks in Vienna over the past few months have resulted in little meaningful progress. Iran continues to drag on the perception that a new deal can be agreed upon while continuously squeezing new concessions from the US. The latest example of this was when the US State Department waived sanctions on Iran’s “civilian” nuclear program.
At the beginning of his administration, President Biden claimed that any new agreement would lead to a “longer and stronger” nuclear deal. Sadly, the way things are going, it is likely that the same old deal from 2015, or at least a version very similar to it, could be agreed upon. This would be bad for four reasons.
First, the original 2015 deal could not live up to its original goal of preventing Iran from ever developing a nuclear weapon. Instead, the best-case scenario was that the JCPOA merely delayed Iran’s progress. The 2015 deal’s “original sin” was the so-called sunset clauses that allow key restrictions on items such as uranium enrichment, centrifuge production and international monitoring to expire after a certain number of years, in some cases as early as 15 years. The sunset clauses were bad in 2015, and are even worse in 2022 if they are not extended as part of any new deal
Second, the original deal did not address the issue of Iran’s ballistic missile activities in any substantial way. This was a major shortcoming that any new deal must fix. According to US Central Command, “Iran’s ballistic missile force is the most formidable in the region.” It is no secret that Tehran has been supplying its proxy forces across the region with advanced missiles.
Third, the original deal offered Tehran massive sanctions and economic relief up front while only requiring it to make temporary and easily reversible concessions on its nuclear program. This money has been used to fan the flames of terrorism across much of the Middle East. A return to the original 2015 agreement will lead to more massive sanctions and economic relief, once again up front, without any meaningful concessions from Iran.
Finally, returning to the 2015 deal would be a mistake because it would mean failing to address Iran’s nefarious activities that continue almost unabated across the region. For example, at least 11 major maritime incidents in the Gulf last year are thought to have been the responsibility of Iran. In October, US and Syrian opposition forces came under drone attack at Al-Tanf base in southeast Syria. According to US officials, Tehran provided the drones and gave the green light for the attack. Since the beginning of 2022, Iran’s proxies in Yemen, the Houthi militia, have been firing ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The Biden administration needs to wake up. Due to Iranian stalling and maximalist demands, the negotiations will either yield a shorter, weaker deal or a return to the flawed 2015 deal.
Biden may want a new nuclear deal but he has to operate in the world he is in, not the world he would like to to be in. Until the geopolitical situation changes, and the US can enter talks from a position of strength, it is time to pull the plug on the Iran talks.
- Luke Coffey is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey