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Iran Nuclear Talks: Bluster And Wishful Thinking In Tehran

Resumption of nuclear talks between Islamic Iran and the Powers will not be easy, as the West also thinks it's time to discuss Iran's missiles and regional policies.

A man carries a poster of the Ayatollahs Khamenei and Khomeini.
A man carries a poster of the Ayatollahs Khamenei and Khomeini.
Hamed Mohammadi


After the killing of the Revolutionary Guards general Qasem Soleimani last year, senior officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran vowed last year that there would be no negotiations with America. They were still keen to avenge his death when a senior nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was also killed. These same people, however, are now willing to do anything to kickstart talks with America and put an end to crippling international sanctions imposed on the country.

The Speaker of parliament, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, said on January 31 that with "20% uranium enrichment (a divisive process started by Iran at the beginning of January), the diplomatic apparatus has a strong negotiating hand for removing sanctions." Qalibaf advised the Biden administration to lift sanctions "before setting preconditions for talks," referring to administration officials' declarations on the need to also discuss Iran's ballistic activities and regional policies.

The policy of exerting maximum pressure on the Islamic Republic, followed by the administration of President Donald J. Trump, has further sunk an economy already wracked by corruption and profound mismanagement. But the country's officials have calculated, as they did before Trump, that increasing threats against the West will shorten negotiations and favor concessions to Iran.

The head of the country's 11th and 12th governments since the 1979 revolution, President Hassan Rouhani, believes it is "easy" to resolve the current impasse. He has said if "the opposition is ready to return to 2017, we're ready too and this can be carried out in a short time." In 2018, the Trump administration controversially withdrew America from the 2015 nuclear pact between Iran and world powers.

Iran's First Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri has optimistically declared that "we're in the last days of sanctions and I can see good days ahead in coming weeks and months. Winter is over."

The least the Biden administration can do now is learn from Obama's mistakes.

The fundamental question remains: is the real issue between the United States and the Islamic Republic restoring the terms of the 2015 nuclear pact? And the simple answer is no. The issue for the West remains Iran's production of ballistic missiles, use of rockets and mortar fire in neighboring countries, and its backing for regional militias and international terrorism. The Iranian government considers these essential policy issues.

The landmark 2015 deal, signed under President Barack Obama, released generous sums of money to Iran, which it duly spent on mischievous meddlings in the Middle East, suppressing opposition at home and expanding its influence. These actions caused the Trump administration to pull out from the pact. Soon after the US departure, on May 8, 2018, Iran reassembled advanced centrifuges to produce 20% enriched uranium, which was at a level with potential for developing nuclear arms.

This clearly demonstrated Iran could quickly resurrect all the nuclear facilities it had claimed had been eliminated under the pact, as confirmed by signatory powers. This also showed that the pact's critics were realistic when they said it was nothing more than a gift for the Iranian regime. European powers have been forced to give the pact another hard examination.

The least the Biden administration can do now is learn from Obama's mistakes and use the pressure levers bequeathed to them by the Trump administration and their sanctions. Beyond these, Iran's internal conditions and those of the region and the world have changed dramatically. Saudi Arabia played almost no role in talks for the 2015 pact. Now, amid a process of détente between the Arabs and Israel, it wants Western powers to include it in all talks about a deal with the Islamic Republic. France's President Emmanuel Macron has said he agrees, adding that any new agreement with Iran must be much stricter than the last one.

One Iranian legislator familiar with security affairs, Ebrahim Azizi, responded by saying this is "the start of another game by the Europeans, and the foreign ministry must block any unreasonable demands made by France and (Saudi) Arabia."

They wanted to give the impression they had the upper hand.

Iranian officials may be pinning their hopes on the U.S. negotiating team, including "friendly" figures like Robert Malley and John Kerry, but the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has said his country wants a solid, lasting accord with Iran, including items beyond nuclear proliferation.

In Iran, conservative legislators have threatened an intensification of nuclear activities in breach of the 2015 pact if the Europeans did not "honor their commitments." In a state of relative desperation, Iran is issuing increasingly loud threats to the West despite unconfirmed reports of discreet contacts with U.S. diplomats. As U.S. officials have been saying, reviving the 2015 pact will not be easy.

Iran's position now shares some similarities with the months leading up to that accord, when officials insisted there would be no deal unless sanctions were lifted. They wanted to give the impression they had the upper hand. Rouhani would issue statements saying that talks had shown "Iran won't surrender to pressure, sanctions and force." But later comments by a foreign policy adviser to the supreme leader, Ali Akbar Velayati, were closer to the truth. He told a television interview in 2018 that, without the pact, "the other option was war."

The regime's options have not changed much in the interim years. Israel is threatening military action. An international coalition is not an impossibility. And Iran's nuclear program could be thwarted with cyber attacks. It is a fluid situation, and the Europeans will not wait forever to negotiate. They may well have already tired of Iran's cat-and-mouse game.

In this context, will Iran agree to end its ballistic activities or regional interventions? If it did, who would verify its compliance, and what would the world powers do should it break its pledges? Iran needs to sell its oil, and years of sanctions and multiple curbs on its banking and financial activities have lost it a big share of the oil market. Can it hope to recover it?

Iranian society is hard-pressed, tired and angry. Some would say it's on the verge of explosion. Hossein Dehqan, another adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has said "regime continuity" is the primary condition of any agreement with the United States. As in the past, the regime wants security guarantees from the international powers, when it should seek them from within its own system. It claims that accepting the West's conditions will do nothing to secure its existence, while rejecting them will push it toward the "war option."

If the West was to create the conditions for the regime's prolongation, the Islamic Republic would of course use this to keep suppressing dissent and to continue, for a while longer, its tattered, parasitical and harmful existence.

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Smartphone on a selfie stick

Steve Gale/Unsplash
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