(MENAFN- Syndication Bureau) By Hussain Abdul-Hussain
To the rest of the world, the most recent round of nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna was the seventh since Joe Biden was elected US president last year. To the new Iranian government, however, it might as well have been the first as Tehran reset whatever agreements the previous delegation had already reached.
Since the last talks six months ago, Iran had installed a new government overseen by a hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi. The change was reflected in the Iranian approach to the talks. As chief Iranian negotiator Ali Baghiri put it: “Changes should be made to the form and content of negotiations.” It appears the new Iranian position has shifted from “moderate” to“radical,” and now looks closer to the thinking of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The talks are intended to reboot the 2015 agreement with world powers for Iran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for removing sanctions. But the deal has been on life support since Donald Trump withdrew the US in May 2018.
True to form, Tehran choreographed the latest discussions to fit its narrative of defiance. The first day of negotiations on Monday was chosen to “celebrate” the 11th anniversary of the “martyrdom” of scientist Majid Shahrayar, one of the founding fathers of the Iranian nuclear program who was killed in a car bomb in Tehran. On the second day of talks, Iran announced “nuclear advances” at its Fordow facility.
Also true to form, and as a matter of policy, Iran held talks with P4+1, that is representatives of the four permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, France, China and Russia — in addition to Germany. America’s Robert Malley, the representative of the fifth country in the P5 group, was instructed to sit alone in a separate room next to where nuclear talks were being held.
Khamenei has been carefully crafting an image that depicts America, rather than Iran, as an isolated country. Khamenei has also been experimenting with what he believes to be a plausible foreign policy: Peel Europe away from the United States.
Next up were the Iranian demands. Whereas the previous government signaled its readiness for “mutual compliance,” Iran’s new rulers have parted ways with the old policy and gone as far as shooting down all variations of such settlement. On the second day in Vienna, Iranian officials made it public that they were neither interested in “mutual compliance” nor in “less for less,” the name given to the interim agreement, the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), the predecessor of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was signed in 2015 and endorsed at the UN Security Council in 2016 under Resolution 2231.
The new Iranian government did not come to Vienna to discuss any past deals, but to present its demand: Suspension of unilateral US sanctions on Iran. After Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal, sanctions that had been suspended under the JCPOA were restored. But Trump went further and added dozens of sanctions of his own, mainly targeting Tehran’s money laundering and sponsorship of terrorism. Iran wants the suspension of all US sanctions that Trump imposed.
Technically, Trump’s terror-related sanctions did not violate the nuclear deal, but Tehran seems to feel powerful enough to force the US to humiliatingly rollback everything Trump. Biden has already said that America’s return to the nuclear deal does not include the suspension of any non-nuclear sanctions.
The new Iran team went even further. Tehran now says that it will not settle for a deal that was approved by the UN Security Council alone. Instead, the Iranian regime wants “guarantees” that, should the JCPOA be restored or replaced, America will not repeat its 2018 withdrawal.
In the US, cementing an international treaty requires Congressional approval, a tall order. Without legislation, no president can guarantee how his successors will handle any international promises. This is, after all, a democracy, where successive governments endorse different — and at times contradictory — policies.
Iran has come back to the nuclear talks with bigger demands than ever. Iranian pundits reasoned that Biden and his Democratic Party are suffering in the polls, and that a breakthrough nuclear agreement with Iran would improve his position in next year’s midterm elections. But that might prove to be a misreading of the US political landscape. Humiliating Biden in nuclear talks further weakens him with Americans and proves that his policy of appeasing Tehran failed, necessitating a US escalation instead.
Khamenei might not be as maximalist as he now looks in Vienna. The Islamist regime has been known for its love of eleventh-hour deals. Iranian delegations think that playing on the edge is in their favor, that the closer Biden gets to his re-election time in November 2024, the better deal Tehran will get.
Tehran should not be so sure. Biden might not be able to hold back the percolating anger in Washington and allied capitals against Iran’s arrogance and destabilizing behavior, particularly towards Arab Gulf allies. The longer the nuclear talks drag on, the bigger the case for the last resort option: Shine the B52s and fly them with bunker busters over Iranian nuclear facilities. As the famous Arab poem goes: When you see the lion’s teeth, don’t assume that the lion is smiling. Iran should not confuse Washington’s patience with weakness.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, in Washington, DC.
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