Endgame for the Iran nuclear negotiations?

Feb 18, 2022 | AIJAC staff

Endgame? Reports say the negotiations in Vienna over Iran's nuclear program may be about to come to an end (Image: Shutterstock, GoodIdeas).
Endgame? Reports say the negotiations in Vienna over Iran's nuclear program may be about to come to an end (Image: Shutterstock, GoodIdeas).

Update from AIJAC


02/22 #03


This Update is focused on reports that the negotiations in Vienna regarding a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which have been in progress since early last year, may be about to end in an agreement.

We lead with a summary of what is known about an alleged draft text of the proposed new agreement published by Reuters (though Iran has denied it is at all accurate), in a report from the Times of Israel. The deal outlined by Reuters sets out a series of steps for both the US and Iran to take, including an immediate unfreezing of US$7 billion in Iranian assets, and Iran suspending its enrichment of uranium above 5%. The story also contains some reporting on the Israeli attitude to the talks and a potential deal. For the details,  CLICK HERE. More on Israeli officials predicting a deal will soon be signed, as well as why Israel will almost certainly oppose it, comes from Haaretz. 

Next up is an analysis piece written before the latest leaks about a draft agreement text, looking at the problems of an agreement such as the one reported, which amounts to simply gradually returning to the original JCPOA. Former senior Israeli defence official Jacob Nagel and American expert Mark Dubowitz argue that the JCPOA’s provisions allow the Iranians to continue to expand their nuclear program – and the provisions limiting Iran will anyway expire shortly. They say that any return to the JCPOA must be accompanied by a “day after” package to impose clear and painful costs on Teheran if it does not move toward the “longer and stronger” deal that the Biden Administration has always said was its goal. For their argument in full,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, on a related note, US-based analysts Hussain Abdul-Hussain and David May look at how aggression from Iran’s regional proxies is pushing Israel and its new Arab allies closer together. They particularly focus on how rocket attacks on the UAE from Iran’s Houthi proxy in Yemen have cemented what is increasingly looking like a Jerusalem-Abu Dhabi alliance. They provide considerable details on how Israel was able to provide both solidarity and genuine aid in the wake of Houthi attacks on the UAE that no one else in the region has been able to offer. For the complete article, CLICK HERE.

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Report: Under draft nuke deal, Iran to first cut enrichment to 5%; get $7b in assets

By Times of Israel Staff and Agencies

Times of Israel, 17 February 2022, 10:03 pm

JCPOA talks in 2015 – the new deal reportedly involves a phased return to the terms of the original deal. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons | Licence details). 

A draft agreement between Iran and world powers would involve a phased return to the 2015 nuclear deal, with both sides initially taking interim steps to curb enrichment and lift some sanctions, according to a report Thursday.

The 20-page draft deal would also include the release of Westerners held by Iran, a key US demand, according to Reuters. Former US president Donald Trump abandoned the deal and reimposed sanctions in 2018, leading Iran to resume open enrichment of nuclear material to levels just below weapons-grade.

Officials involved in talks over the last seven months to reinstate the deal say time is running low, though some have indicated optimism that the sides could reach an agreement soon.

Iran’s top negotiator in Vienna, Ali Bagheri Kani, said Wednesday that world powers were “closer than ever” to reaching an agreement, while the US said it was in the “very final stages” of indirect talks with the Islamic Republic.

Israel has opposed a US return to the 2015 terms or a similar accord, fearing it would ease Iran’s path to the bomb. Israel’s Channel 13 said Thursday, in an unsourced report on the reported terms of the draft accord, “The feeling in Israel is that within days or weeks there will be a return to the old-new bad deal we knew.”

According to diplomats quoted by Reuters, the draft outline includes a series of steps for all parties to take following its final approval, starting with Iran suspending enrichment of uranium above 5%.

The first phase will include the unfreezing of some $7 billion in Iranian funds stuck in South Korean banks under US sanctions, as well as the release of Western prisoners held in Iran.

Eventually, Iran will return to core nuclear limits like the 3.67% cap on enrichment purity, diplomats said, and sanctions will begin to be waived.

The new agreement is said to entail the US granting waivers on sanctions against Islamic Republic’s oil sector rather than lifting them outright. This will require the renewal of waivers every few months, as was done with the 2015 deal.

According to the diplomats, the time between the initiation of the deal and when sanctions are waived is not yet decided, but is estimated to be between one and three months.

Iran is also seeking a guarantee that the US will not be able to withdraw unilaterally from the agreement again, which would require an act of Congress. It is also demanding promises that the US will halt pressuring companies not to trade or invest in Iran.

The spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry appeared to deny the report’s validity, tweeting that any eventual deal “will be far from the unsourced spin making the rounds.”

The US is not a direct party to the deal, but is closely involved with the negotiations in Vienna.

Israel is also not a party to the Vienna talks, and has said it reserves the right to act as it sees fit against Iran’s nuclear program regardless of the negotiations’ outcome. While the government is officially opposed to a return to the 2015 deal, it has also sought to influence negotiations to seek tighter curbs on Tehran and more robust security arrangements.

Earlier this week, it dispatched a senior diplomat to Vienna for meetings related to the nuclear talks.

Israel’s Channel 12 reported Wednesday that the Iranians want to sign the new agreement ahead of the Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, on March 20, citing a diplomatic source.

Iran denies pursuing nuclear weapons, though experts say its current enrichment levels do not have any civilian applications.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – in a speech on Monday he promised to ramp up Iran’s nuclear efforts, while insisting that any claim Iran is seeking nuclear weapons is “nonsense”. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons | Licence details)

In a televised speech on Thursday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei vowed that his country would ramp up the development of its civilian nuclear program, while asserting that claims of interest in nuclear weapons were “nonsense.”

But talks have repeatedly stalled in recent months as Iranian negotiators press hardline demands, exasperating Western diplomats.

US negotiator Robert Malley and National Security Council envoy Brett McGurk expressed concern last week of Iran being only “weeks” away from having enough fissile material to build a nuclear weapon, upping pressure on the Biden administration to reach a deal before it becomes irrelevant.

Biden Must Learn From the JCPOA’s Mistakes

Jacob Nagel and Mark Dubowitz

Newsweek, Feb. 4

US Senator Bob Menendez (D. – NJ): Warning that a return to the JCPOA will allow Iran to continue building up its nuclear capabilities (Photo:  Flickr | Licence details)

The parties to the Vienna talks on Iran’s nuclear program have returned to their capitals and are expected to reconvene soon for a final round. There are signs that the next round could see an announced return to an even more flawed version of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Congress is not sitting on its hands. On Tuesday, Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, took to the Senate floor to condemn the 2015 deal and the Biden administration’s rush to return to it. He argued that the deal allows the clerical regime to continue building its nuclear capacity: “This is exactly why I was so concerned over the JCPOA framework of leaving the vast majority of Iran’s nuclear program intact.”

Chairman Menendez is correct. The 2015 JCPOA not only kept much of Iran’s nuclear program intact; it permitted the program to expand. The deal offered Tehran a pathway to nuclear weapons as enrichment restrictions sunset, and allowed it to build industrial-size enrichment capabilities with near-zero nuclear breakout time and an easier clandestine sneak-out option. It gave Iran the immediate right to work on R&D for advanced centrifuges, which are more powerful and therefore easier to hide because fewer are needed to produce weapons-grade uranium. The Islamic Republic also had more latitude to develop ballistic missiles, as well as access to heavy weaponry, as the UN conventional arms and missiles embargoes were scheduled to lapse in five to eight years. All of this in return for the lifting of sanctions to allow tens of billions to flow into the coffers of the mullahs.

Now, six years later, the conventional arms embargo is already gone; the missile embargo will sunset next year; key restrictions on the installation of advanced centrifuges begin disappearing in 2024; and most enrichment restrictions, including the ban on weapons-grade uranium enrichment, will be gone by 2031. In the meantime, Tehran has massively expanded its nuclear capabilities. Much of that escalation occurred after the election of Joe Biden and the abandonment of his predecessor’s maximum pressure campaign.

What’s equally concerning is that the 2015 agreement has no mechanism to force the Iranians to renegotiate and reach the “longer and stronger” deal that the Biden administration now acknowledges must come before Tehran is a turn of the screw away from developing nuclear weapons. In 2025, the snapback mechanism that gives the U.S. or other parties to the deal the unilateral right to restore UN sanctions on Iran will expire. Gone will be any multilateral leverage, as China and Russia are unlikely to agree to reimpose sanctions.

The JCPOA nuclear deal announcement in 2015 – lessons need to be learned from mistakes made at that time (Photo: Flickr | Licence details, Creator: Samuel Kubani)

Washington cannot be satisfied with an agreement based solely on “compliance for compliance.” It must be made explicit, whether in the agreement or outside it, what will happen if Tehran does not agree to a new deal that permanently blocks all pathways to nuclear weapons (“longer”). U.S. negotiators have to addresses the deal’s many flaws relating to inspections, military weaponization, missile development, support for terrorism and other malign Iranian activities (“stronger”).

The U.S. team also cannot prematurely close the International Atomic Energy Agency’s open investigations into undisclosed nuclear materials and activities. Iran has blocked the agency’s weapons inspectors in at least four sites. The U.S. should be satisfied with nothing less than a full resolution of all outstanding questions related to the military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. There can be no “unprecedented verification and monitoring regime,” of the kind Obama administration promised back in 2015, without addressing this critical element of the Iranian program.

While American diplomats have been offering proposals in Vienna, the clerical regime has responded with increased attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and against U.S. allies. Iranian-backed Houthi terrorists—who the Biden administration removed from the U.S. foreign terrorist organization list in February to appease Tehran—have replied to this unilateral American concession by attacking the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia with missiles and drones. One attack on the UAE used long-range missiles traveling more than 1,000 km and carrying around 500 kilograms of conventional warheads. It was the first such attack in decades of this range and potency. And it’s a clear violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime, an agreement between three dozen countries to control the proliferation of missiles. While Tehran is not a part of this agreement, its flagrant violation cannot go unanswered. Returning to the JCPOA without a clear way forward on how to constrain Iran’s deadly missile program—the delivery vehicle for a nuclear weapon—would pose a direct threat to American allies and, when Iran finishes an intercontinental ballistic missile, to the American homeland.

Returning to an even worse version of the 2015 deal legitimizes all of Iran’s nuclear advances, permits it to retain and expand its nuclear and missile capabilities and enables it to build a deadly conventional military. This “JCPOA minus” will leave Tehran less than six months from nuclear breakout with this time limit dropping sharply in a few years. The JCPOA, at least temporarily, kept breakout time to one year. Fueling all this will be tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief that will fortify Iran’s economy, strengthen the regime and expand support for its terrorist proxies.

If the Biden administration does return to the 2015 agreement, it will need a “day after” package that imposes clear and painful costs on Tehran if it doesn’t move quickly to negotiations on a longer and stronger deal. That package should address the imminently expiring UN snapback that is essential for negotiating leverage. There will also be no new deal of any length or strength without serious pressure and a credible threat of military force.

Playing for time is not a strategy when time benefits your enemy. And, as Chairman Menendez made clear in his remarks on the Senate floor, hope is not a strategy either.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Professor Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a visiting professor at the Technion Aerospace faculty. He previously served as acting national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and as head of the National Security Council. Mark Dubowitz is FDD’s chief executive. An expert on Iran’s nuclear program and sanctions, he was sanctioned by Iran in 2019. 

The Houthi crisis is creating an Emirati-Israeli opportunity

Hussain Abdul-Hussain and David May

Al-Arrabiya, Feb. 16

Israeli President Isaac Herzog meeting UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan during Herzog’s historic visit to the UAE in late January. That visit was marred by a Houthi missile attack  (Photo: Israel GPO)

Houthi attacks on the United Arab Emirates proved what many have known for a long time, that Arab solidarity is an imaginary concept. In Beirut, Hezbollah cheered on the strikes. In Gaza, Hamas politburo member Mahmoud al-Zahar said the attacks were as blessed as “liberating Palestine from the Israeli occupation.” And in Baghdad, the pro-Iran group Alwiyat al-Waad al-Haq gave the Houthis a hand by launching explosive drones at Abu Dhabi.

When it came to the attacks on the UAE, the strongest regional displays of support came from Israel. Israeli gestures of solidarity helped solidify Emirati-Israeli ties, which have been growing since the declaration of peace between them in the Abraham Accords of 2020.

The Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen launched a drone attack on an Emirati port on January 17 that killed three people and blew up several fuel tankers. One week later, Emirati and US forces intercepted two Houthi missiles launched at the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi. The Houthis attacked the UAE again on January 31.

Following the initial attack this past month, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett sent a letter to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, offering “heartfelt condolences.” Bennett further stated, “Israel is committed to working closely with you in the ongoing battle against extremist forces in the region, and we will continue to partner with you to defeat our common enemies.” Bennett also spoke with the Crown Prince and tweeted, “Israel stands with the UAE. I stand with Mohammed bin Zayed. The world should stand against terror.”

Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, President Isaac Herzog, Israeli Ambassador to the UAE Amir Hayek, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), and several members of Knesset echoed Bennett’s condemnations of the Houthi attacks and condolences for the Emiratis. Lapid also called for Israel to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization, while Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel “will be happy to cooperate” with the UAE to bolster its defenses. Meanwhile, Israeli-Druze MFA digital diplomacy officer Lorena Khateeb shared her support in English and Arabic.

Beyond government declarations, individual Israelis deplored the Houthi attacks and affirmed their support for the UAE.

Despite security warnings, Herzog traveled to the UAE in late January, becoming the first Israeli president to visit the country. Israeli defense officials reportedly visited the UAE to discuss defense and intelligence assistance in the wake of the Houthi attacks. And Israel’s Channel 13 reported that Israel is planning to advance the sale of missile defense systems, possibly including Israel’s famed Iron Dome, to the UAE. For his part, Prime Minister Bennett “ordered the Israeli security establishment to provide their counterparts in the UAE with any assistance” to prevent future attacks.

Further solidifying Israeli-Emirati ties, Israeli police commissioner Kobi Shabtai traveled to the Emirates on February 6 to promote security cooperation between the two countries. Around the same time, Israel hosted a delegation from the UAE’s Federal National Council. Ram Ben Barak, head of the Knesset’s foreign and defense committee, met with the visiting delegation and called them “neighbors and brothers.” Beyond the defense portfolio, the UAE and Israel signed cooperation agreements in healthcare and tourism on February 8.

Houthi attacks with missiles supplied by Iran, like this Zelzal 3, or missiles built with Iranian assistance, have acted to bring Israel and its new regional allies like the UAE closer together (Photo: Wikimedia Commons | Licence details). 

The UAE reciprocated Israel’s torrent of well-wishing. After meeting Herzog late last month, Mohamed bin Zayed said they discussed their “common view of the threats to regional stability and peace, particularly those posed by militias and terrorist forces,” and the UAE and Israel’s “shared understanding of the importance of taking a firm stance against them.”

Thanks to the Houthi attacks, the UAE seems to be taking its partnership with Israel to a new level, where the two governments actively cooperate in countering pro-Iran militias throughout the region.

Every crisis presents an opportunity. Both the UAE and Israel have found themselves the targets of Iranian-sponsored drone and rocket attacks. Israel’s expressions of solidarity and offers of aid in the wake of Houthi attacks on the UAE will further cement the budding Israeli-Emirati alliance. The bonds enhanced during this crisis may lead to mutual recognition in the UAE and Israel that the two countries do not just face shared threats but may have a shared destiny.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where David May is a senior research analyst. Follow them on Twitter @hahussain and @DavidSamuelMayFDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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Image: Shutterstock

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(Credit: Shutterstock)

Emboldened Iran is still seeking nuclear capacity


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Screenshot 2024 04 16 At 3.14.28 Pm

‘Flipping of the narrative’: Israel ‘depicted as victim’ after Iranian attack – Ran Porat on France 24 television

Large anti-Israel protest in Washington, DC, in October. No other issue turns out so many protestors so consistently and globally (image: Shutterstock/ Volodymyr Tverdokhlib)

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Image: Shutterstock

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