Now that President Ebrahim Raisi is officially in power following his inauguration on Thursday, officials hope meetings will resume in the coming weeks, but it is still unclear if and when that will happen.
Although Raisi is seen as a hard-line supporter, he said in principle he does not oppose the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, and US officials said they did not expect him to withdraw from the talks.
Yet negotiations stalled at the end of June, and with Iran’s nuclear program accelerating, US officials are signaling in private and public that they will not stay at the table forever. The terms of the original agreement may no longer cover the program as it continues to progress.
When talks were halted after a sixth round, one of the main open questions still being worked out was how to deal with Iran’s progress in nuclear research and development, according to an official familiar with the negotiations. ongoing talks. The official said Iran was basically telling the P5 + 1, “Bad luck, four years of Trump, we’ve suffered so much, that was our response, you can’t take it away from us.”
All parties to the talks feel time is running out, the official said. “We all want to come back, and we are determined to work on it, but it is a fact when Blinken says (…) that the negotiations cannot go on forever,” the official said. “As Iran proceeds with the enrichment, there comes a point where there is no more JCPOA to return to. We are not there yet.”
Hope ‘slowly fades’
Failure to return to the deal would be a blow to President Joe Biden’s foreign policy agenda.
Its officials, meanwhile, have privately said they inherited major obstacles to resuming the deal from the previous administration and are now considering contingency plans.
After President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and imposed a maximum pressure campaign on Iran with tough new sanctions, Iran began to develop and test centrifuges that shortened the time it would take to produce enough material for a bomb. Officials now believe it would take much less than a year – the “breakout” standard codified in the JCPOA – for Iran to produce enough nuclear material for a weapon. Iran has also restricted the access of UN inspectors to its main uranium enrichment plant at the Natanz nuclear facility.
Hope has “slowly faded,” said another person familiar with the negotiations, since it became clear that a deal would not be reached until the Iranian election. This timeline was the original US goal, but significant sticking points remained such as the scope of sanctions relief – with the US and its allies arguing that it can only lift sanctions related to the nuclear deal, not the sanctions associated with human rights violations, conventional weapons violations or other problems.
The prospect of the United States also working to “lengthen and strengthen” the deal, as US officials have characterized it, did not help the negotiations. Iran has not yet been willing to commit to discussing non-nuclear issues, such as its ballistic missile program, in the follow-up talks.
This call has become more urgent since a new class of Iranian-made drones that can evade US detection began targeting US military assets in Iraq.
A “bad surprise”
Still, U.S. officials have been caught off guard that the delay in resuming talks has lasted so long, people involved in the talks said.
The official close to the talks called the length of the blockage since the elections a “bad surprise”, not least because Iranian officials had told their counterparts that Tehran would continue the talks once the elections were over.
There is speculation among the P5 + 1 partners that the delay could be a tactical maneuver by Iran. Increasingly, however, they also believe that there is a real debate going on within the Iranian system about how to proceed with the negotiations.
“There seems to be a determination by Raisi on how they want to take hold of the process and leave their mark – that would be more than tactics,” the official said. “The working hypothesis we have (…) is that Raisi thinks what he says and wants to return to the JCPOA,” said the official.
A major uncertainty: “We do not know if Raisi will want to appoint his own people, a new team, to come to the negotiations,” said the official.
A new team could be disruptive as negotiators now know each other well after months of marathon sessions in hotel conference rooms, spending day in and day out discussing aspects of the deal, then using midday and evening breaks to report back to their home country.
Negotiators also fear that if the new hard-line Iranian president isn’t happy with the previous administration’s work on the issue, he may have unrealistic expectations of what can be accomplished, pushing back their progress.
“We as a group have been very clear with the Iranians on what we can give and where we cannot,” the official said. “The team around Rouhani understood this … we’ll see if the team around Raisi understands it and also if the team will change.”
For the Iranians, however, a major persistent problem is the question of guarantees. Tehran “wants to know that there will not be Trump 2.0 as long as it is in full compliance,” the official said, and faces another situation where it abides by the terms of a deal, only so that ‘A US leader quits the deal and reimposes crippling economic sanctions. The Americans, of course, cannot guarantee what a future administration might do.
A potential crisis is looming
Some members of the National Security Council believe a nuclear crisis is looming if an agreement is not reached by the end of the year, according to people familiar with the matter. This view is shared by some experts: Dr Jeffrey Lewis, professor at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said that the alternative to reaching a deal is that “we are returning to the crisis by course ”which plagued successive administrations until an agreement was reached in 2015.
Lewis disagrees, however, with the idea that the return to the deal should depend on the one-year “breakout” standard. Officials should be more concerned, he thinks, about how long it would take Iran to “walk away” from the deal, in a bid to make it harder for Tehran to build a nuclear facility secret for the third time.
However, not everyone thinks that a nuclear crisis is inevitable if the JCPOA fails. Menendez and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham came up with another idea that staff members say has been welcomed by the administration, namely to push Iran to agree to the creation of a nuclear fuel bank for the region. Persian Gulf. The idea is that Iran can only access such a bank, and power its commercial nuclear reactors, on condition that it renounces its enrichment and reprocessing of domestic uranium – key components for nuclear weapons.
Yet such a solution, even if accepted by Iran, would only address the nuclear issue and not Iran’s wider destabilizing activities throughout the region. Iran’s return to abiding by the JCPOA, even though the deal was limited to Iran’s nuclear activities, was seen by Biden and experts as a crucial starting point for continuing negotiations.
“It’s a race against time – we can only re-enter the deal on our terms, and if we cannot re-enter the deal by the end of the year, it is possible that Iran has achieved nuclear breakthrough capability, ”said Halie Soifer, a former foreign policy adviser to then-senator Kamala Harris, who is now CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.
“Ultimately, the Biden administration is committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, which is a goal it shares with our allies, including Israel,” Soifer said. But she noted that the United States, Israel and Iran all have new governments and it will take time to coordinate to deal with the nuclear threat and threats to regional stability.
“What remains unclear is how much time we have,” she said.