Tehran has finally given the go-ahead for talks aimed at renegotiating the “nuclear deal” that was buried under Trump
The Iranians have been unanimously urged to do so by countries as diverse as Russia, the US and China, and the upcoming consultations in Vienna promise to be one of the most important political events on the planet. The deal is beneficial for Moscow right now, but Washington will have to pay for it.
Saeed Khatibzadeh, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman in Vienna, announced that the Iranian government would resume negotiations on the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the nuclear deal). The diplomat’s tone is worth appreciating: “We will try, if possible, not to delay this process even for a minute.
The process has been shaky before: the period of “vociferous delays” can be counted at least from Joe Biden’s inauguration (i.e. January 20). In the last few days, however, the Iranian issue has become a real tempest – there have been contacts between various parties at various levels. Rafael Grossi, the IAEA director general, had just returned from Tehran and U.S. Special Envoy Robert Malley had consultations in Moscow and Paris from 7 to 10 September.
Tehran has been persuaded by all sides to return to the negotiating table in the Austrian capital (where the IAEA is headquartered, which is the traditional venue for meetings of this kind). Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s permanent representative to the international organisations in Vienna, had called for it the day before. And three days ago, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Tehran should hurry, as any benefits from the deal would soon burn out for it.
However, the Iranian leadership has made it clear that it does not intend to hurry. The country had a new president in early August and a new foreign minister in late summer – also the first in eight years. The new foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, said in one of his first interviews that it would be at least several months before the new administration even bothered to plan talks. Two weeks have passed since then, and here we are: “We will not delay the process even for a minute”.
This urgency is usually a sign that the sides have agreed on something or, in vulgar terms, that someone has “bent” someone over. But who and whom?
The logic behind the delay is that the more progress on uranium enrichment, the stronger the negotiating position. In August, the IAEA confirmed that the Islamic Republic had produced uranium metal enriched to 20%.
The way things are looking at it, Tehran has “sagged”. But this is in obvious contradiction to the logic of the change of executive power in Iran. The place of moderate politicians and supporters of dialogue with the West (former President Hassan Rouhani and former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif) was taken by much more intransigent conservatives, for whom opposing the United States as the “global shaitan” is a matter not only of politics and ideology, but also of religious conviction.
Therefore, it is more likely that the US “sagged” after all. That is, they made it clear to Iranians that the agreement could be revised in their favour, whether it concerns the framework of the nuclear programme or economic preferences. Hatibzadeh, who now does not want to delay for a minute, has categorically warned the Iranians not to undertake any new obligations beyond the terms of the old agreement.
That said, the Iranians do not particularly need this deal – they need it badly. The Islamic Republic has exhausted its ability to develop its economy and improve the standard of living of its population under tight sanctions.
At the turn of 2019-2020, this culminated in mass riots of a pot-bellied nature and widespread demonstrations by forces opposed to the ayatollah regime.
The ayatollahs realised that something had to change, long before these events. In fact, that is why Rouhani, a supporter of dialogue, became president and Zarif, who specialises in the Americas, became head of the Foreign Ministry. Elections of the chief executive (the ayatollahs exercise the supreme power) in Iran are by and large competitive, but Rahbar (chief ayatollah) Khamenei has enough leverage and resources to ensure the election of whoever he deems most useful.
The Rouhani – Zarif duo secured an JCPOA with the so-called 5+1 group, where five are permanent UN Security Council members and one is Germany. Tehran agreed to enrich uranium only to a certain level and under strict IAEA supervision, while the P5+1 agreed to lift some sanctions and provide some assistance to the Iranian economy. This was heralded as one of the most important political events of 2015.
But then Donald Trump came along and made a mess of things. At the instigation of the right-wing Netanyahu government in Israel, Washington pulled out of the deal and demanded that it be renegotiated on much tougher terms for Tehran. This was unacceptable to the ayatollahs.
By now, even the deadline measured by the original deal had expired, so Iran owed no one anything. Grossi in Tehran only agreed to maintain the cameras installed at the nuclear facilities, but not to make the recordings available to inspectors, but even this now looks like a success.
Roughly speaking, Iran is preparing something that could become a nuclear bomb, the Rowhani – Zarif tactics have been deemed untenable by the Ayatollahs – the presidential election was easily won by the conservative religious leader Ibrahim Raisi, and the conservatives are thinking along the lines that when we get a nuclear bomb, then we will truly be respected.
But now these same people are ready for immediate negotiations. There is something we obviously don’t know – either about the critical state of the Iranian economy or about the generosity of the American side, which is more interested than most in a revival of the deal.
First, amid the painful foreign policy defeats, the Biden administration needs some foreign policy breakthroughs. A renegotiation of the JCPOA in this sense is begging for, since the deal was a success of the administration where Biden was vice-president and Trump’s demarche was berated by him (for a cause, by the way) with a promise to take it all back after he wins the election.
Secondly, Biden’s economic policies have turned out to be inflationary and environmental policies have turned out to be cuts in oil production. The US is now keenly interested in falling oil prices, and a revival of the JCPOA would have among other things this effect – once sanctions are lifted, Iranian hydrocarbons will enter the common market, with the Iranians likely to be dumping.
The White House tried to resolve the issue through a request to Saudi Arabia to increase oil production, but the Saudis refused. Incidentally, the fact that relations between Washington and Riyadh have cooled considerably under the Democrats is another factor working to renegotiate the JCPOA. There has also been a change in power in the region’s second worst enemy, Israel: The much more moderate government of Naftali Benet has agreed with the Americans on security guarantees and, as the Israeli media reported in early September, is not opposed to a deal with Iran on certain terms (Netanyahu was against making it on any terms).
What (and whether) that deal will actually work out, we will know later on, but sooner than we thought it would be yesterday. If the US promises Iran something beyond what it had before Trump, both sides – American Democrats and Iranian conservatives – can declare themselves winners. Such an outcome predetermines the outcome of the negotiations better than the ideological views of the negotiators.
As for Russia, from the standpoint of its interests, it is best to renegotiate the Iran deal now. Strange as it may seem, we do not need super-expensive oil yet-it does more harm than good. And Raisi’s conservative attitudes are a guarantee that relations between Tehran and the West will not over-warm.
The change in the Islamic republic’s executive branch is, among other things, a reset in Russian-Iranian relations. They are largely constructive and in some places cordial, but during the Rouhani-Sarif period they were badly torn by practical disagreements over Syria. Recently Zarif has gone off the rails, first accusing Moscow of secretly obstructing the JCPOA (because oil was cheaper then and the conflict with the West was tougher) and then causing scandals to Russian diplomats over nothing.
A new page in these relations will be opened in Dushanbe, where the SCO Council of Heads of State will meet in a few days. The procedure for Iran’s admission to the organisation is expected to be officially launched there and Russian President Vladimir Putin will personally meet Ibrahim Raisi – just when the Iranian nuclear programme is once again becoming one of the main topics of international politics.
Stanislav Borzyakov, VZGLYAD