Geopolitics

Plan B? Why Iran Thinks It Has The West Cornered On Nuclear Deal

The U.S. is calling for "imminent" return to talks. But Tehran has made advances on its nuclear program that could force the West to accept, in a new pact, its bomb-making capacity, which Iran will "freeze" if Western powers lift sanctions.


Plan B? Why Iran Thinks It Has The West Cornered On Nuclear Deal

A military exercise by the Iranian Army near the border with Azerbaijan

Ahmad Ra'fat and Hamed Mohammadi

-Analysis-

It was a declaration of excessive optimism. Speaking in Doha on Sep. 30, the European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, said that nuclear negotiations with Iran would resume "within an acceptable period of time." Talks on reviving the 2015 pact to keep checks on Iran's nuclear program had ground to a halt before June's election of the very conservative Ibrahim Raisi as Iran's president. That has left the country under international sanctions, and its contested nuclear activities without outside supervision.

There was talk in recent days of referring Iran's dossier to the United Nations Security Council, which could happen in mid-November when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) governing board is to meet again. On Thursday, the U.S. State Department called for an "imminent" return to talks, but says it's up to Tehran to agree.

Iran's new foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, says that talks may resume "soon," but has stressed "soon" means different things to Iranians and Westerners.

The U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned Iran several times that negotiations cannot go on forever, and should Tehran persist in dragging its feet, it may well be referred to the Security Council — where it can expect a chiding no less!

Iran wants a lighter pact.

Israel, which feels keenly threatened by Iran's program, is increasingly skeptical of the chances of an agreement. Iran's hesitations on resuming talks may explained by the uncertainty about how to proceed; though some believe it is simply reluctant to revert to the 2015 pact.

What's most likely is that Iran wants a more limited and less intrusive pact, in contrast with Western demands for a deal to include its ballistic program and regional interventions.

Khamenei's positive fatwa

Some experts suspect Iran's regime may have enough enriched uranium to feed a nuclear bomb this month. Iran may wish to resume "last minute" talks in Vienna, when it appears it is about to get its hands on a bomb. It will then expect the West to accept, in a new pact, its bomb-making capacity, which Iran will "freeze" if Western powers lift most or all sanctions, especially on its banks, foreign assets and energy sector.

Iranian policymakers seem to have concluded that the United States and Europe no longer want to revive the old pact and will accept that deal — because, apparently, it is the only way to avoid an Iranian bomb. At the same time, to reassure the West that Iran isn't truly pursuing a bomb, its officials keep citing the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's fatwa, that nuclear weapons are "illicit."

Western powers are likely preparing their response to a breakdown of talks, while the Israelis have been promoting their plan B, and C if need be, to contain Iran without a pact.

photo of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saluting with his hand at a military university graduation ceremony

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a military university graduation ceremony

Iranian Supreme Leader's Office/ZUMA

Signs on the Azerbaijan border

Meanwhile, amid verbal tensions between Iran and its neighbor the Republic of Azerbaijan, Iranian troops have for days been engaged in maneuvers near Iran's northern frontier, ostensibly to test weaponry including tanks and artillery.

The exercises are a response to what Tehran sees as threatening developments around it, including war games involving Azerbaijan, Turkey and Pakistan; security and military activity in Azerbaijan by the Israelis; a recent conference in Iraq that urged the Iraqi government to recognize Israel, U.S.-Israeli naval maneuvers in the Red Sea; and yet another suspect fire at a warehouse run by the Revolutionary Guards, west of Tehran.

Slowly, circles are being drawn around the Islamic Republic of Iran and its regional power games

Israel's plans B and C may indeed consist of harsher sanctions or acts of sabotage against Iranian installations, and Iranian officials are aware of the threats. The IAEA's critical reports recently led one Iranian legislator to denounce IAEA inspectors as CIA and Mossad spies.

Biden hasn't strayed far from Trump

The regime's differences with the Western world go beyond its nuclear dossier. Slowly, circles are being drawn around the Islamic Republic of Iran and its regional power games. Its officials may wonder whether or not Israel's Plan B has quietly begun.

An unnamed Revolutionary Guards Official was recently cited as saying that Iran has readied its plans against Israeli threats, and "we have a full hand in terms of intelligence and operational scenarios, with all the information on Israel's sensitive and strategic sites."

Iran's new foreign minister Amirabdollahian has made a point of showing his ministry's close coordination with the Revolutionary Guards, in marked contrast with his predecessor Javad Zarif.

Indeed, the Islamic Republic lost interest in the Vienna talks when the West began bringing up its regional activities, missiles and human rights. Before he was killed in 2020, the Revolutionary Guards general Qasem Soleimani had warned that reviving the 2015 pact was in fact a Western bid to curb the rising power of Shia Iran "against the Wahhabi-Jewish (brand of) Islam. They want to desiccate the Islamic current."

Israel may have broadly managed to persuade the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden to collaborate more closely against the Iranian regime's multiple threats. There are several signs that Washington is holding the same line: Congressional approval of a billion dollars of funding for Israel's Iron Dome system; improving Israeli ties with Arab states and provisions added (by U.S. House Republicans) to the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act; and blocking any bid by the Biden administration to unilaterally lift sanctions on Iran. These are the type of obstacles Iran's regime had hoped would disappear with the Trump administration.

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