Political scenarios vary from a US return to the deal with sanctions relief over Iran to using military force against Tehran.
Iranians and Americans have returned to the nuclear negotiating table once again to develop a framework to end the political deadlock created by the former Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018.
Considering the myriad disagreements between the two countries, it will not be an easy task. Negotiations restarted today in Vienna.
A significant portion of the US establishment believes that a revitalised deal still might not work in limiting Tehran’s nuclear capability because Iran has already approached a level of uranium enrichment level - good enough to produce a nuclear weapon.
On the other hand, the composition of the Iranian negotiation team, led by Ali Bagheri Kani, a hardliner, who previously said that he did not like the JCPOA signed in 2015, signalled that even with full sanctions relief, it will be difficult for Tehran to come to an agreement with the US.
“I am not optimistic about the restart of indirect negotiations between Iran and the US on the nuclear deal (JCPOA). That’s because the person now heading the Iranian delegation is one of the hardest hardliners in the Iranian government,” says Matthew Bryza, a former US ambassador to Azerbaijan and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
In the past, Kani called the JCPOA agreement a “total loss” for Iran, Bryza tells TRT World.
Bryza adds that there is a danger that Washington will see the negotiating lead as someone sent to simply bide time and is not a sign of sincerity.
The suspicion from the Americans is that the Iranians want to buy time towards developing nuclear weapons. This month, Iran appeared to have a stockpile of 60 percent enriched uranium, which is a crucial milestone for reaching 15 to 25 kilograms of 90 percent enriched uranium, a purity formula needed for an atomic weapon’s use.
Despite negative US and Western perceptions of Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran reiterates that its uranium enrichment is for energy and other peaceful purposes.
“That's not right, Iran has always said that its nuclear program is not for military purposes and Iran is not looking forward to any kind of nuclear weapons,” says Fatima Karimkhan, a Tehran-based journalist.
Karimkhan believes US efforts “to sell a picture that Iran is going to have some military purposes” by enriching uranium casts a shadow over the whole process.
While some Americans and their allies are “trying to push” Iran to produce a weapons-grade nuclear fuel, “it is not the case in Iran,” Karimkhan tells TRT World.
Is the deal’s full compliance possible?
Mounting suspicion on both sides regarding the other’s intentions makes full compliance of the deal a distant possibility, or something not likely in the short-term.
“We are getting closer to a point at which returning to compliance with the JCPOA will not in and of itself recapture the benefits of the JCPOA,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month, referring to Iran’s increasing capability to make a nuclear bomb.
Americans including Blinken increasingly appear to believe that Iran is so close to the level of developing a nuclear weapon, as a result, it’s meaningless to restore a deal, which aimed to limit Tehran’s nuclear capability in the first place.
Iranians are not so hopeful either.
“Here in Iran most people do not have a real expectation from these new negotiations,” says Karimkhan. For full compliance of the deal, Iranians are demanding the Biden administration provide a full sanctions relief package, which was imposed by the former Donald Trump administration.
Tehran also demands that the Biden administration should guarantee that if Americans rejoin the agreement they will not withdraw from it again under any future US presidents. It’s something which is a difficult promise to make, and to keep.
“They will not be able to reach an easy agreement in a short time because both countries want more for less and it will not be reachable in a short time. As a result, most of the people are not expecting an actual result,” Karimkhan observes.
Bryza is also not “confident” that full compliance is going to happen after negotiations. But he also notes that other JCPOA signatories like the EU and the UK will push hard for full compliance of the deal.
He is not sure about the Russian and Chinese positions with regards to full compliance because both countries would love to see a diminishing US influence over Iran, which was enabled by Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.
But Bryza, a man who knows how to negotiate being a former diplomat, also describes the outcome of negotiations as “unpredictable” because of the changing environment of international politics. “How they are carried” is crucial to the outcome, he says.
“It’s possible that if the talks get going, that could be positive signs that come from one side or another. I personally think that there are ways the Biden administration could find to accommodate Iran’s demands that sanctions be lifted before the agreement comes back to place,” the former diplomat says.
However, Americans will not lift sanctions as long as Iranians do not enter a negotiation process. “That’s politically impossible in Washington.”
Does no deal mean war?
Biden and other top officials have already reiterated that a nuclear Iran will not be tolerated by Washington.
But does that mean war? It may be so, according to some recent remarks coming from top US officials like Brett McGurk and Ned Price.
"We are still hopeful that diplomacy can find a way. But if it cannot find a way, we are prepared to use other options," said McGurk, the US National Security Council's coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, on the weekend during a Gulf meeting.
"There is no question, we are not going to allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, period," McGurk added. He also believes that “When it comes to military force to prevent a country from obtaining a nuclear weapon, that is a very achievable objective."
Price, the State Department spokesman, also talked about the use of “other means”, appearing to echo McGurk’s tough talk, “if the Iranians through their actions or through their inactions demonstrate or suggest that they lack that good faith, that they lack that clarity of purpose.”
“Just an empty word, we have heard this for as long as I can remember. They, like every other part of this negotiation, are very much aware that neither the US nor its allies in the region can begin a military operation against Iran. These empty words are just playing in the game of those who are not looking for an actual agreement,” Karimkhan says.
“Iran was and will always be ready for defending itself against any kind of military engagement with anyone in or outside the region,” she adds.
Bryza also finds that tough talk “unwise” and “vintage language out of the Trump administration that’s not going to work well in Tehran, particularly with this hardline government.”
The more Washington talks about the military option publicly, the more Tehran will respond with emotional responses to those talks, according to Bryza.
He advises his colleagues in Washington to conduct “diplomacy behind-the-scenes” which could start a partial compliance process, aiming to reach a full compliance step by step.