Back to the Nuclear Negotiating Table
Nov 30, 2021 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
After a five month hiatus, nuclear talks resumed in Vienna overnight between Iran, the EU, Russia and China – with the US excluded from direct participation.
Last week, prior to the renewal of the talks, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) head Rafael Grossi made a visit to Iran which failed to achieve any progress regarding Iran’s increasingly severe limitations on IAEA inspections – and Grossi is saying his agency will soon be unable to guarantee Iran is not diverting material to make nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, an important background to the talks is Iran’s accelerating nuclear advancesin recent months, including more and more 60% enriched uranium and production of uranium metal – a key ingredient of bomb cores.
This Update looks at the significance of the renewed talks and what might happen next, as well as policy options, particularly for the US Biden Administration.
We lead with US Iran experts Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh, who argue that the Iranian insistence that US representatives not be present at the talks is part of a larger pattern. They say the talks will yield little because the bottom line is that Iran seeks no agreement, and can only be induced to make minor concessions for massive rewards. They warn the Biden Administration that hopes to turn back the clock to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal will not come to fruition, while talk of a limited “interim” deal to temporarily slow Iran’s nuclear advance will lead only to humiliation for the US. For their complete argument, CLICK HERE.
Our next contributor, former senior US counterproliferation official Anthony Ruggiero, agrees that the Vienna talks are hopeless and urges the US to rethink its overall Iran strategy. He lists why Iran’s actions are completely inconsistent with a peaceful nuclear program, and reasons why he thinks the Biden Administration’s policy cannot achieve its goals. He urges the Administration to forge a new bipartisan US strategy for Iran, crafted by a team of Democrat and Republican elder statesman convened to conduct a fast policy review and develop a better approach. For the whys and wherefores of Ruggiero’s recommendation, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, two experts from the JINSA thinktank urge the US to set a firm deadline for the nuclear talks to be completed, after which the US should walk away and prepare a “Plan B”.
Finally, we offer a detailed analysis of a recent document setting out Iran’s negotiating strategy and demands, from Washington Insitute for Near East Policy expert Omer Carmi. The Iranian demands come from an editorial published in the official Iranian regime newspaper, Iran. Carmi demonstrates that the demands set out in that piece are maximalist and will be almost impossible for the US and other countries in the nuclear talks to meet. At the very least, these radical demands will make it very hard to sell any genuine compromise to the Iranian public if one were reached, Carmi notes. To read his full analysis, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- Two good short video discussions of the nuclear talks featuring US experts Mark Dubowitz and Behnam Ben Taleblu.
- An American general says Iran is “very close” to nuclear weapons capabilities. Meanwhile, an Iranian general says Iran will never “back off from annihilation of Israel, even one millimetre.”
- An Israeli intelligence report says Iran may be about to start enriching uranium to full weapons-grade. Meanwhile, the Israeli military is reportedly readying a ‘Plan B’ if the Iran nuclear talks fail.
- Lazar Berman of the Times of Israel interviews some Israeli experts about where the nuclear talks might go.
- Lebanese American journalist Hussain Abdul-Hussain identifies what he thinks US envoy to Iran Robert Malley is doing wrong.
- Former US official Richard Goldberg reviews how the US Congress played a key role in creating leverage against Iran in the lead up to the JCPOA, and could do so again.
- Israel signed some major new deals with the UK, as Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited London this week. Here is a joint op/ed on the growing UK-Israel partnership signed by Lapid and UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
- Herb Keinon of the Jerusalem Post explores why Israeli President Isaac Herzog chose to celebrate Chanukah at the flashpoint Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Naomi Levin analyses the problematic antisemitism policy put out by the Australian Greens.
- Oved Lobel’s update on the latest news about increasing Iranian-sponsored cyberattacks and the dangers they pose, including to Australia.
- AIJAC’s media release welcoming the Australian Government’s decision to list both all of Hezbollah and the far-right group “The Base” as terrorist organisations. A short AIJAC video on the Hezbollah listing is here – and one on The Base is here.
- AIJAC’s latest webinar with Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, Senior Vice President for Research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), discussing his findings in his new book, Gaza Conflict 2021: Hamas, Israel and Eleven Days of War (FDD Press 2021).
- Also available are two short video excerpts from the Schanzer webinar – one on Malaysia’s little-known role in assisting Hamas, and another on the IDF’s use of precision munitions and predetermined target banks, which kept casualties low and strategic goals front and centre, in the Gaza conflict.
- Finally, a written summary of this webinar was published by J-wire.
By Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh
Wall Street Journal, Nov. 28, 2021
The Iranians are refusing to let the US negotiators be in the same room with them, in the talks taking place at this Vienna hotel (Photo: Wikimedia commons).
Arms-control talks between Iran and the great powers resume Monday with a notable absence. At Tehran’s insistence, the U.S. delegation won’t have a seat at the table—its members must wait in an antechamber to be briefed by the Europeans. The mullahs have always relished humiliating Americans, particularly those eager to prove their benevolent intentions. These negotiations will yield little, no matter how much money Washington releases or how ardently Biden administration officials describe any follow-on talks as important steps toward a diplomatic solution.
The clerical regime’s atomic ambitions will continue to progress rapidly because the U.S. administration has no intention of trying to rescind what President Obama’s nuclear deal granted: the development of high-yield, easily hidden centrifuges, the key to an unstoppable bomb program. The Islamic Republic has displayed an uncanny ability to advance its aspirations and eviscerate American red lines with impunity.
The theocracy’s nuclear diplomacy succeeds precisely because it seeks no agreement. The mullahs understand things their interlocutors don’t. The U.S. and Israel have repeatedly chosen not to disable Iran’s nuclear program by force, undermining the regime’s fear of attack and allowing the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, more maneuvering room. All U.S. administrations have sincerely, at times desperately, wanted an accord. The United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency censure the Islamic Republic, and the regime ignores them. If Tehran pretends to be interested in diplomacy, Washington, always fearful of another war in the Middle East, makes more concessions.
The achievements of this diplomatic stratagem are extraordinary. Washington and the Europeans once insisted that the Islamic Republic couldn’t have a domestic enrichment capacity. This was a sensible precaution. The infrastructure required to enrich uranium for nuclear power is the same as what is needed to make a bomb. The process is costly, and most nations that use civilian nuclear power import refined uranium.
Yet today U.S. and European officials, and many nuclear experts, pooh-pooh the idea that Iran should forgo indigenous enrichment. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal Mr. Obama struck and President Trump abandoned, has become canonical among Democrats. It specifies not only that Iran has the right to enrich but that its enrichment capability can become industrialized. The clerical regime obtained this permissive accord by merely showing up at various conclaves and holding firm. American officials fulminated, threatened, bickered among themselves and eventually capitulated.
The Biden administration isn’t diverging from Mr. Obama’s path. A well-timed Israeli leak shows the White House is considering an interim arrangement whereby Iran would cease some of its activities in exchange for sanctions relief. It won’t be long before Washington deludes itself into believing that a threshold capability will satisfy Iran, that it can be an Islamist version of Japan—inches away from developing a bomb but with no intention to take the next step.
The ascendance of new Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi changes the economic balance of the talks because his Administration views segregation from the global economy as a virtue (Photo: Naresh111, Shutterstock).
The ascendance of the hard-line Ibrahim Raisi to the presidency altered the economics of arms control. He subscribes to Mr. Khamenei’s “economy of resistance,” the notion that Iran can meet its needs by relying on its internal market and trade with China and neighboring states. In this view, segregation from the global economy is virtuous, wise and courageous. Unlike former President Hassan Rouhani, the new crew isn’t looking for Western commerce as a means of rejuvenating the economy and the revolution. There appears to be little concern among Mr. Khamenei’s ruling elite that this scheme will lead to poverty and another lost generation.
Even more than Mr. Raisi, Mr. Trump accelerated history. According to Mr. Obama’s blueprint, we were going to see a nuclear Iran and a much richer clerical regime. Freed from sanctions, the ruling clergy and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards would have had time to build up their armed forces, as well as the nuclear-weapons program. Thinking that renewed and improved sanctions would give him a “good” nuclear deal (always a dubious proposition), Mr. Trump collapsed 15 years of Western diplomacy and the JCPOA’s envisioned decade of sun-setting restrictions into clear and irrevocable choices.
Mr. Biden can’t turn back the clock. Diplomacy and extortion—the two are synonymous for the Islamic Republic—may have had their day. Mr. Khamenei is going to make the president pony up a huge amount of money for the fleeting relief of his nuclear anxiety—assuming the supreme leader still even wants to play such games with the U.S. For Mr. Biden, the only question is whether he wants to endure this humiliation in return for so little.
Mr. Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mr. Takeyh, the author of “The Last Shah,” is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Iran nuclear talks are restarting, but they’re pointless: Biden needs a bipartisan strategy
By Anthony Ruggiero
New York Post, November 22, 2021
Biden Administration Iran negotiator Robert Malley insists applying leverage to Iran is a failure – but the Administration appears to be getting nothing by simply exhibiting goodwill toward the Iranian regime (Photo: Flickr | Licence details, Creator: Dean_Calma).
President Joe Biden’s Iran policy is failing, and the indirect negotiations restarting in Vienna Nov. 29 won’t yield a win.
Biden assumed that goodwill gestures and proactive concessions would bring Tehran to the table. Instead, Iran is patiently moving toward a nuclear weapon — or at least a turnkey nuclear option — narrowing the president’s decision space.
Out of ideas, Biden should quickly assemble a high-powered, bipartisan team of outside advisers — think Condoleezza Rice and Leon Panetta — to craft a new policy that can unify Washington while Tehran signals it’s preparing to sprint for a bomb.
Iran has produced uranium enriched up to 60 percent purity, a short distance to the 90 percent needed for nuclear weapons. It’s also producing uranium metal, an important step in nuclear-weapon development.
In February, Tehran announced it would no longer adhere to the Additional Protocol, which allows the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct short-notice nuclear-site inspections. It also halted IAEA access to surveillance and other electronic data collected at its declared nuclear sites. Meanwhile, it’s stonewalling IAEA investigations into its undeclared nuclear activities.
In short, Tehran’s actions are not remotely consistent with a peaceful nuclear program. For Biden, the inconvenient truth is Iran has taken its most troubling and aggressive steps after he took office.
An often-overlooked element of good policy-making is evaluation. Is the policy achieving its intended goal? It’s obvious Biden’s Iran policy is not.
That may be the only thing on which people on both sides of the issue agree. The administration’s friends say this is because former President Donald Trump poisoned the well with his hostile rhetoric, relentless sanctions and the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani. Just keep negotiating, they say, and Tehran will come around.
Those excuses are just an exercise in passing the buck.
When Biden entered office, Iran was hurting from his predecessor’s “maximum-pressure campaign,” yet the White House refused to apply the leverage it inherited. Robert Malley, Biden’s chief negotiator, declared in April that we saw “the result of the maximum-pressure campaign. It has failed.”
What did Biden get in exchange for his good will? Nothing. His team isn’t even allowed in the same room with Iranian negotiators. Tehran received sanctions relief without any commitments.
Now the Islamic Republic wants “more for less”: an arrangement where America provides even greater sanctions relief in exchange for nuclear restrictions far less stringent than in the 2015 nuclear deal.
Diagnosing the problem with Biden’s Iran policy is easy; developing a solution is more difficult.
The IAEA board of governors meeting this week is an important opportunity. The Biden administration should pursue Tehran’s censure for covering up clandestine nuclear work throughout the deal’s existence. It’s resisted in the past, worried that Iran would become less cooperative at the negotiating table, but the talks are moribund, so it’s time Biden signaled that Washington is done waiting. When the board passed a June 2020 censure resolution, Iran (briefly) complied with the IAEA’s requests for information and access.
Ruggiero urges the Biden Administration to urgently commission a bipartisan review of US Iran policy led by elder statesmen, such as former Secretaries of Defense Leon Panetta (L) and Robert Gates (R). (Photos: Flickr, public domain).
More importantly, the president should use the delay Tehran’s stonewalling has created to order a policy review co-led by a Democrat not in his administration and a Republican who wasn’t in the Trump administration. Several candidates come to mind: Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, former defense secretaries, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former CIA Director David Petraeus and former Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).
The policy review should be quick, ideally 30 to 60 days, and start with a review of the Islamic Republic’s motivations. Is Tehran increasing its nuclear activities as leverage for sanctions removal and a return to the 2015 nuclear deal? Or does Iran look at North Korea, which tested its first nuclear weapon more than 15 years ago, as an example to follow?
The answers to those questions will determine whether a return to the 2015 nuclear deal or any agreement that provides Tehran much-needed sanctions relief is advisable. If Tehran is only interested in pursuing a financial lifeline for limited nuclear concessions, then the “longer and stronger” deal that Biden initially advocated is not possible. Removing all leverage for an expiring deal — or one that’s even worse — is not in America’s interests.
Some experts will say there’s no time for such a review. But Biden has already spent nine months waiting for Iran to become a cooperative negotiating partner — he can spare 30 to 60 days to get his approach right. If he doesn’t, Tehran will follow Pyongyang’s path to a nuclear weapon.
Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and served as senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the National Security Council.
Reading Through Iran’s Nuclear Demands
by Omer Carmi
Washington Institute PolicyWatch 3548
Nov 24, 2021
Iran – the official newspaper of the Iranian government – published an editorial on Nov. 14 setting out Iran’s demands for the Vienna talks.
Tehran has maintained its stringent line of insisting that Washington lift all sanctions, verify their removal, and provide future guarantees before it will lift a finger on resuming compliance with the JCPOA.
After a months-long pause, the Iran nuclear negotiations will resume on November 29 in an attempt to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). To set the stage for the Vienna meetings, the official newspaper of President Ebrahim Raisi’s government published an editorial on November 14 titled “Operation Sanctions Defeat.”
The article emphasized that Iran has been taking a new approach toward the West for some time now—namely, expanding its uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities in order to put the ball in the international community’s court and force practical responses to the impasse. This strategy aligns with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s rhetoric in recent months indicating his reluctance to return to the JCPOA framework.
So what would Iranian officials see as a good deal? If the government’s editorial is any indicator, the terms they present next week could remain maximalist, with substantial repetition of past demands and some new ones that may be even more stringent.
Demand 1: Negotiations must focus solely on sanctions removal. Iran has long been adamant about refusing to discuss its regional activities or missile programs as part of the nuclear negotiations. Yet the editorial went a step further by maintaining that the regime will no longer negotiate its nuclear activities either. Recent Iranian statements have repeatedly framed the Vienna talks as a forum to discuss sanctions removal alone, either minimizing or ignoring the fact that issues such as uranium enrichment must be discussed as well. For example, chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri-Kani told Al Jazeera on November 22 that there is no reason for Iran to cease nuclear activities that violate the JCPOA when “the violating and non-compliant party to the deal does not demonstrate, in practice, its commitment to the JCPOA,” referring to Washington’s 2018 withdrawal from the deal.
Given Tehran’s significant nuclear advancements over the past year, a refusal to negotiate such activities until all sanctions are removed would presumably be a nonstarter given the West’s paramount nonproliferation goals. Tehran’s posture may just be a bluff intended to help it minimize the scope of required nuclear reversals or use even the most minor “compromises” as negotiating chips. Yet if Iranian officials truly refuse to budge on this point, it may indicate they are resuming the Vienna process solely to waste (or buy) time, not to reach a new deal.
Demand 2: Washington should compensate Iran for withdrawing from the JCPOA. During his weekly press conference on November 8, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh insisted that the United States acknowledge its responsibility for the current situation. The November 14 editorial went further, arguing that Washington must compensate Iran for its losses in order to build the necessary trust between negotiators. Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has mentioned this idea several times in recent months, including an October 27 demand that Washington unfreeze $10 billion of frozen Iranian assets as a goodwill gesture to show that the Biden administration “has a serious desire to lift sanctions.” Some observers might characterize this as the opening salvo in a “less for less” interim agreement to defuse tensions with the United States and limit Iran’s ongoing nuclear advancements ahead of broader talks. Yet Iranian officials have repeatedly rejected incremental proposals over the past year, insisting that the only deal they will make is full sanctions removal followed by a return to compliance with their JCPOA nuclear commitments.
Demand 3: All non-JCPOA sanctions must be lifted. Iran has long emphasized that it expects Washington to remove all sanctions that are “contrary to the nuclear deal,” including 1,500 individual sanctions imposed by the Trump administration after its 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA, as well as nonnuclear sanctions and other unilateral measures imposed under President Obama. This July, the Supreme Leader’s office published an interview with Iranian envoy Kazem Gharibabadi, who claimed that during the previous rounds of Vienna negotiations, the United States refused to lift Trump-era sanctions from more than 500 individuals or other key restrictions (e.g., various executive orders concerning the arms embargo; the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA).
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been insisting that the US never lifted sanctions properly even during the JCPOA, and demanding mechanisms be implemented to enforce US compliance (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).
Demand 4: A mechanism must be established to verify that sanctions are actually removed. Khamenei’s March 2021 Nowruz speech accused the Obama administration of lifting sanctions only “on paper” during the JCPOA’s early years, asserting that Washington continued to threaten and deter companies from doing business with Iran. Against this backdrop, the November 14 editorial acknowledged that removing all sanctions will take time; it also noted that Tehran may allow an impartial body to supervise the verification process, and signaled that the country’s ability to buy/sell oil and transfer its foreign currency reserves back home would be good indications that the process is effective. Again, Tehran seemingly expects all of these processes and assurances to be in place before it returns to its nuclear commitments.
In September, the Majlis Research Center detailed what such a verification mechanism should look like. It recommended that sanctions removal be defined in quantitative terms and reassessed on a continuous basis, so that Iran could decide if it wants to remain compliant with the deal or reduce its commitments again. The report then suggested a long list of indicators to determine Washington’s level of compliance, such as a minimum threshold of two million barrels of oil sold per day. An April report by the same center estimated that the initial verification process would last between three and six months.
Demand 5: Washington must provide guarantees that it will comply with the new deal. In July, Khamenei argued that U.S. authorities had refused to give guarantees that “they will abide by their commitments in the future,” and Iranian officials have reiterated this theme in recent days. The November 14 editorial firmly emphasized the need for such U.S. commitments. On November 12, Abdollahian explained that recent U.S. designations against Iranian entities made it an “undeniable necessity” for Washington to give objective guarantees. And a day earlier, Bagheri-Kani noted that European governments would be required to guarantee they will trade with Iran no matter what the U.S. position may be, suggesting they could use some kind of blocking statute to nullify the effects of any resultant American sanctions on European firms.
Iranian officials presumably understand that Washington will struggle to meet this demand. Their rationale for emphasizing it likely stems from a desire to raise the cost of any future U.S. withdrawal while lowering the impact on Tehran. For example, Gharibabadi hinted in July that Iran had asked Washington to allow companies “reasonable time” to continue working in the Islamic Republic in case of another sanctions snapback, noting that U.S. officials had rejected the idea. Similarly, the Majlis Research Center suggested that negotiators make Washington take steps to “decrease the risk of trading with Iran.”
Whether the tough rhetoric in the November 14 editorial is mere posturing or Tehran’s actual position should become clearer once the negotiations start. Khamenei has not remarked on the resumption of talks since July, so his specific thoughts on the current state of play can only be assessed through the lens of the Raisi government’s rhetoric. The approach that Iranian negotiators take and the preconditions they lay out on day one of the Vienna meetings will be a good signal of whether or not the regime is willing to move past the hardball rhetoric behind closed doors and compromise.
In any case, it is discouraging that Tehran has done little if anything to prepare the Iranian public for potentially walking back its oft-ballyhooed nuclear progress. To the contrary, its rhetoric could complicate the already difficult quest for a new accord by implying to domestic audiences that Iran need not lift a finger at the negotiating table to secure sanctions relief.
Omer Carmi is a former visiting fellow at The Washington Institute.