Iran nuclear talks resume: What are the prospects for dialogue? Can world powers curb Tehran?
Experts say that even if Iran were forced to give up its uranium stockpile or halt its research, the expertise it has gained cannot be taken away
Can the landmark 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers be restored? As Iran and six global powers gather in Vienna Monday to discuss the tattered treaty, the answer appears to be no.
Since then president Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018, Iran has raced forward with its nuclear programme, making it all but impossible to simply turn back the clock. The election of a hard-line leader in Iran, coupled with a US administration seen as weak in the region, have further dampened prospects for a breakthrough.
Former Israeli defence minister Moshe Yaalon, who fiercely opposed the original deal, was one of the rare Israeli voices to argue against withdrawal at the time. He now says the US pullout has turned out to be the “main mistake” in the region of the past decade.
A flawed deal, he told a security conference last week, “probably was better than not having the agreement and to allow the Iranians to use the withdrawal as an excuse to go ahead with the project.”
“Now they are in the closest stage they have been ever to become a (nuclear) threshold State,” he said.
Here’s a closer look at the deal and what to expect this week:
What is the deal they're talking about?
The original deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was agreed after then Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, widely seen as a moderate, first took office.
In 2015, Iran signed an agreement with the US, Russia, China, Germany, France and Britain that was intended to set limits on Tehran’s nuclear programme in order to block it from building a nuclear weapon — something it insists it doesn’t want to do.
In exchange, Iran received relief from sanctions that those powers had imposed, including on its exports of oil and access to the global banking system. Iran was allowed to continue to pursue its nuclear programme for civilian purposes, with strict limits on how much uranium it could enrich, the purity it could enrich it to and other measures.
Before the deal, conservative estimates were that Iran was within five to six months of being able to produce a bomb, while some feared it was within two to three months. With the deal safeguards in place, that “breakout time” was estimated to be more than a year.
Why did it collapse?
Critics, led by then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, assailed the deal because the restrictions on Iran were temporary. They also complained it did not address Iran’s non-nuclear military activity, such as its support for hostile militant groups and development of long-range missiles.
In 2018, then president Donald Trump pulled the US unilaterally out of the deal, criticizing clauses that ease restrictions on Iran in stages — and also the fact that eventually the deal would expire and Iran would be allowed to do whatever it wanted with its nuclear technology. He also said it needed to be renegotiated to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional influence such as backing militant groups.
When Trump withdrew, with strong urging from Netanyahu, he promised a campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran. However, the approach appears to have backfired. Despite increased US sanctions, Iran’s government remains firmly in power, and the country has raced forward with nuclear research banned by the original deal.
Can't the deal just be reinstated?
The crippling American sanctions that followed took their toll on Iran’s economy — but failed to bring Tehran back to the table to broaden the deal as Trump wanted. Instead, Tehran steadily exceeded the limitations set by the deal to pressure the remaining members for economic relief.
Iran began exceeding the limits of the agreement after the US withdrawal, and now enriches small amounts of uranium up to 60 percent purity — a short step from weapons-grade levels of 90 percent. Iran also spins advanced centrifuges once barred by the accord and its uranium stockpile now far exceeds the accord’s limits.
Iran in February began restricting International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of its nuclear facilities. Instead, it said that it would preserve surveillance footage of the facilities for three months and hand them over to the IAEA if it is granted sanctions relief. Otherwise, Iran said it would erase the recordings.
For Iran to return to the deal, it must revert to enriching uranium to no more than 3.67 percent purity, stop using advanced centrifuges and drastically reduce how much uranium it enriches, among other things.
Experts say that even if Iran were forced to give up its uranium stockpile or halt its research, the expertise it has gained cannot be taken away.
What are the prospects for this week's talks?
In the short term, it does not look encouraging. Heading into the talks, Iran’s hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi, has made maximalist demands, including calls for the US to unfreeze $10 billion in assets as an initial goodwill gesture.
The tough line might be an opening gambit. European negotiators remain confident a deal will be reached in the short to medium term.
But US officials do not appear optimistic. President Joe Biden and his top advisers have held a series of meetings in recent weeks with key allies and negotiating partners to prepare for the possible failure of talks.
Because of Trump’s withdrawal, the Americans won’t even be in the negotiating room. Instead, they will be nearby and work through mediators.
In an interview broadcast Friday, chief US negotiator Rob Malley said signs from Iran “are not particularly encouraging.”
Speaking to NPR, he said the US prefers a diplomatic solution. But if that is impossible, he said the U.S. will respond accordingly. “The options that are at America’s disposal are, you know, they’re familiar to all,” he said.
Given the tepid US response to alleged Iranian military activity in the region, including attacks on civilian shipping in the Persian Gulf and a strike on a US base in Syria, US military action does not seem to be a serious threat. The United States’ bungled pullout from Afghanistan has further eroded American credibility in the region.
“I’m very pessimistic,” said Yoel Guzansky, a former official in the Israeli prime minister’s office who is now a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Iran shows patience, resilience, determination. I’m sorry to say the Americans don’t show that, and we don’t have a lot of time.”
What can Israel do?
Israel is not a party to the talks, but it has a huge stake in the outcome.
It considers Iran to be its No. 1 enemy and views a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat. Israel is believed to be the only nuclear-armed State in the region, though it does not publicly acknowledge its own arsenal.
Netanyahu’s successor, Naftali Bennett, has been careful not to clash with Biden in public. But his positions are similar to Netanyahu’s. He has expressed hope an improved deal would emerge from the talks but reiterated Israel’s longstanding threat to take unilateral action if necessary.
“We will maintain our freedom to act,” he said last week. On Sunday, he said Israel is “very disturbed” by what he sees as a willingness by the global powers to lift sanctions and reinstate “insufficient restrictions in the nuclear sphere.” He said Israel has been passing this message to all concerned parties.
Despite such threats, Israel might hesitate. Iran has spent the past decade scattering its nuclear sites and hiding them deep underground. Plus, Israel might be reluctant to sabotage a global diplomatic effort.
Is Iran overplaying its hand?
China and Russia, two important Iranian outlets for trade and parties to the deal, could grow impatient with Tehran, especially if a now-shaky system of international nuclear inspections falls apart. Economic pressure continues to squeeze Iranians, who have seen their savings evaporate with the free-fall of the country’s currency.
If talks drag on, the US might turn to new sanctions or even military action. There’s also the risk of a military intervention by Israel.
“We’ll see in the coming days what exactly” Iran’s approach will be, state department spokesman Ned Price said last week. “But we’ve also been very clear that this is not a process that can go on indefinitely.”
With inputs from agencies
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