Agreement with Iran? Under the hard varnish, a glimmer of hope for diplomacy.

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The tone in Washington this week was decidedly pessimistic about the prospects for resuming talks with Iran on a revived nuclear deal. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke of Iran’s “refusal to engage in good faith” and warned: “We are prepared to look to other options if Iran does not change course.

But beneath the harsh rhetoric lurk a number of economic and regional political factors that suggest a resumption of diplomacy is even more likely than not. They include Iran’s need for relief from US sanctions and President Joe Biden’s hopes of avoiding a nuclear crisis that could overtake his national agenda.

Why we wrote this

Recent US remonstrances that time is running out for a revived nuclear deal with Iran are not in line with US actions to keep the door open. For all parties, the justification for an agreement persists.

Other factors include Iran’s growing relations with Russia and China; and Israel’s less fierce opposition to a deal abandoned by former President Donald Trump in 2018.

“Ultimately, restoring the deal serves the best interests of Iran and the United States,” said Kelsey Davenport, director of non-proliferation policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington.

“If the talks to restore the [deal] fail, the probability of a nuclear crisis, the probability of a return to a strategy of coercive sanctions, the probability of military strikes, everything is increasing, ”she adds. “But these probabilities do not benefit [Iranian President Ebrahim] Raisi, and they don’t benefit Biden.

Washington

As for the prospects of resuming talks with Tehran aimed at restoring the tattered 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the tone in Washington this week has been decidedly pessimistic.

“With each passing day and Iran’s refusal to engage in good faith, the trail is getting shorter,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday during his meeting in Washington with foreign ministers of ‘Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

The senior American diplomat then looked at a little saber. “We are ready to turn to other options if Iran does not change course”, that is, if Iran does not halt the continued progress of its nuclear program and not come back to the negotiating table.

Why we wrote this

Recent US remonstrances that time is running out for a revived nuclear deal with Iran are not in line with US actions to keep the door open. For all parties, the justification for an agreement persists.

But under public pessimism and harsh rhetoric lurk a number of economic and regional political factors that point to a resumption of diplomacy between two major adversaries – and the resumption of the 2015 international accord that temporarily closed the way to l ‘Iran towards a nuclear weapon – is even more likely than not.

These factors include significant pressures like Iran’s need for relief from economic sanctions imposed by the United States and President Joe Biden’s hopes of averting a nuclear crisis that could overtake his national agenda.

A range of factors

But other more subtle factors favoring diplomacy include Iran’s growing relations with two major regional powers – Russia and China; Iran’s strained but nascent relations with its Persian Gulf neighbors, including Saudi Arabia; and Israel’s less staunch opposition to a return of the United States to a deal abandoned by former President Donald Trump in 2018.

Even soaring global energy costs are contributing to growing pressure on Iran to resume indirect talks with the United States on restoring the nuclear deal, some analysts say.

How do oil prices fit into a list of glimmers favoring diplomacy?

Consider this: China, one of the six powers that signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, with Iran, is seeing its economy hampered by energy shortages and rising prices. Beijing would welcome the easier access to Iranian oil that would accompany a renewed agreement.

At the same time, oil-producing Iran – its economy stuck in the doldrums despite recent modest growth – would very much like to take advantage of the higher prices that a return to legal oil sales would offer, according to some international analysts.

And as Tehran’s recent accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization suggests, the Iranians have put more economic eggs in the Chinese basket and aim to grow bilateral economic relations.

The alternative serves no one

Yet even with all of these contributing factors, the key driver of a return to talks is going to be a decision by the two main protagonists – the United States and especially Iran – that the alternative to dialogue serves no one.

“Ultimately, restoring the deal serves the best interests of Iran and the United States,” said Kelsey Davenport, director of non-proliferation policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington.

“If the talks to restore the JCPOA fail, the likelihood of a nuclear crisis, the likelihood of a return to a strategy of coercive sanctions, the likelihood of military strikes, everything increases,” she adds. “But these probabilities do not benefit [Iranian President Ebrahim] Raisi, and they don’t benefit Biden.

Iranian Ambassador to Vienna-based UN organizations Kazem Gharibabadi leaves a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria, May 25, 2021.

President Biden entered the White House on a pledge to reestablish the JCPOA, and earlier this year it emerged that a US return to the deal – and Iran’s return to compliance. nuclear limitations of the agreement – was imminent. (After the United States pulled out in 2018, Iran questioned the validity of the deal and eventually reverted to prohibited activities. These include the spinning of increasingly sophisticated centrifuges providing higher purity of highly enriched uranium, a key step on the road to building a nuclear weapon).

But the sixth round of talks ended in April without a deal, and then the intransigent Mr Raisi was elected president in June.

Speculation about a return to Vienna for a seventh round of talks has since followed a roller coaster ride, with surges of optimism followed by falls of despair.

The last two weeks are a good example. Last week, Iran’s new foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, told Moscow that Iran was finalizing diplomatic consultations and “will soon re-establish our negotiations in Vienna.” But that was followed this week by falling hopes and warnings from then-Secretary Blinken German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the diplomatic window is closing.

US actions against words

For some US-Iranian analysts, the Biden administration is largely to blame for stalled diplomacy and the failure to bring Iran back to the Vienna table, since the US has never substantiated its warnings. through actions.

“Americans keep talking about how diplomacy hopes dwindle, opportunities dwindle, a window closes, but ultimately their rhetoric doesn’t sync with their behavior, and what their behavior says is that ‘They are really trying very hard to keep the door open,’ said Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior researcher on Iranian security and political issues at the Washington Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

In response, he adds, Iran’s new class of hard-line supporters find “some glee” in “turning the superpower into a supplicant” and “attempting to tempt Washington into premature sanctions relief.” Those in power in Tehran are now “more tolerant of risk and more favorable to escalation, and more willing to negotiate harder.”

This does not mean that Tehran will ultimately not return to the Vienna talks and even the JCPOA, Mr Ben Taleblu said. But he says Iran demonstrates the goal it intends to pursue if it returns to the negotiating table: “Get more but offer less”.

Yet not all Iranians agree with the Raisi government’s maximalist approach to nuclear diplomacy.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, the former foreign minister who was the former Iranian counterpart of Secretary of State John Kerry in negotiating the JCPOA, said in a public conversation online last week that Iran had a “opportunity” to return to the agreement “while keeping his dignity intact,” according to the Amwaj.media website.

Mr Zarif also quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin as telling him that “if when the United States declares that it wishes to return to the JCPOA Iran takes a hard line, then the whole world will turn against” Iran. – what Mr Putin added was already happening.

Iran’s “Eastern Orientation”

The role of Russia and China in getting Tehran to say “yes” can be crucial. Mr. Ben Taleblu notes that the Iranians have long spoken of an “Eastern orientation” in their foreign policy as a way to counteract Western influence. And while that reorientation may be a long-term goal, he says it indicates where Iran is heading – and suggests that Tehran might prefer not to alienate Moscow or Beijing by precipitating a regional crisis.

“Politically Moscow matters to Iran, but economically Beijing matters a lot more, and the Iranians cannot easily ignore this at the moment,” given their weak economy, he said.

Ms Davenport of the Arms Control Association adds that while China is unwilling to exert Moscow’s style of open pressure on Tehran, Beijing clearly prefers a return of the JCPOA.

“The greater access to the Iranian oil market that would accompany an agreement would clearly benefit China in various ways,” she said, adding that “from a global perspective, Chinese interests suffer if there is an escalation of tensions and conflicts in the region. “

How much this type of external factor matters to Tehran remains to be seen.

For Mr. Ben Taleblu, the United States must move beyond rhetoric and show teeth if it is to bring Iran back to Vienna. And he’s not the only one who thinks something has to happen soon.

For now, Davenport says she sees Iran’s nuclear advances as primarily aimed at “increasing Iran’s influence” in eventual negotiations. But she fears that some of Iran’s advances may reach a point of no return.

“My concern is that Iran’s progress will become more difficult to reverse in the coming months,” she said. And if during this period Iranian hardliners continue to play hard to get and meet the Americans with new demands, she said, “this delay could be fatal.”

Editor Scott Peterson in London contributed to this report.


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