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VIENNA – Iran is stalling.
A new hardline regime in Tehran has insisted that it return to the negotiating table and resume talks on an agreement to contain its nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions. But his actions tell a slightly different story.
In the past few days, Iranian officials have held dozens of meetings with foreign officials to discuss the nuclear talks – but have given few details about when they will return and what they want. And the regime continues to play a game with the United Nations Nuclear Inspection Agency, making deals to avoid censorship only to block inspectors’ access days later.
The push-pull tactic has raised concerns in diplomatic circles that a return to the groundbreaking 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is becoming increasingly difficult.
The deal was put on life support in 2018 when then-US President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal only to get new life when President Joe Biden took power. Since then, the world powers have held six rounds of indirect talks between the US and Iran in Vienna, hoping to find an agreement. But talks have been on hold since June, when the negotiators split up until the Iranian elections came up.
While the world waits, Iran is building its nuclear capabilities. Experts warn that the country’s “breakout time” – the time it would take to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb – is getting shorter.
“Iran is certainly playing for time and in the meantime will continue to expand its nuclear program in order to gain political influence,” said a senior diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the delicate situation. “Iran will most likely only come back to the table in Vienna if the West makes a goodwill gesture or makes certain concessions to Iran.”
Iran could view the US as “weak” right now, the diplomat added, given its recent string of diplomatic disputes, from a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan to a fallout with France over a terminated submarine treaty. That perception could encourage Iran to harden its negotiating position, said the senior diplomat.
Tehran’s mixed signals have extended the expected timetable for a renewed agreement. In a recent analysis, Henry Rome of the Eurasia Group rated the revival of the Iranian nuclear deal this year as “unlikely given the growing uncertainty about Tehran’s interest and the shrinking timetable”.
New York, New York
At the UN General Assembly in New York last week, Iranian officials gave little cause for optimism.
In a spate of around 50 bilateral meetings held during the week-long meeting, Iran’s new foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, did not provide political leaders around the world with any specific information about the timing of the talks, according to three diplomats working with the Der Reason.
Nevertheless, Western allies used these meetings to urge Amirabdollahian to return to the negotiating table. It was a common theme at Amirabdollahian’s meetings with foreign ministers from Germany, France and Great Britain as well as with the EU foreign affairs representative Josep Borrell.
According to a Press release After Borrell’s meeting with Amirabdollahian in New York, the Iranian foreign minister had “promised to be ready to resume negotiations as soon as possible.”
Iran also held a meeting of the so-called Joint Commission during the UN General Assembly, made up of the remaining members of the 2015 agreement – Iran, the UK, China, France, Germany and Russia – and chaired by the European Union. The assembly should help resolve the current stalemate.
Meanwhile, in Iran, Tehran decided to prevent UN inspectors from visiting the Karaj complex outside of Tehran. Centrifuges, machines that enrich uranium, are installed in the key system.
The inspectors wanted access to Karaj to replace broken and damaged cameras that were recording the facility’s activities. a move that might have derailed the nuclear talks completely.
But now, just weeks after it was signed, Iran appeared to be stepping back on parts of its promise.
According to a confidential report presented to IAEA members on Sunday and viewed by POLITICO, IAEA Director General Raphael Grossi sent Iran four letters asking for access to the website – to no avail. Grossi’s report also states that Iran’s refusal to allow UN inspectors access to the Karaj site is in violation of the latest agreement, even if Iran allowed IAEA inspectors access to all other nuclear sites.
Kazem Gharibabadi, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, rejected this interpretation on Twitter. saying the Karaj complex “is still under investigation by security and judicial investigations” and therefore the cameras and equipment are “not included for maintenance”. The Karaj facility was the target of an alleged drone attack in June that Iran accused Israel of.
Grossi is expected to travel to Tehran to meet with the new leadership “in the near future” Offer from September 12th. This could also be an opportunity to discuss the access disputes.
A tougher position?
Iran’s recent tactics are part of an expected hardening of strategy following the country’s recent elections that brought more conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi to power as president.
Raisi has brought in officials more skeptical of the nuclear deal, including Ali Bagheri Kani, a senior hard-line diplomat who was part of Iran’s original negotiating team for the 2015 deal and is now deputy foreign minister.
Similarly, a second senior diplomat told POLITICO that “there are many indications that Ali Bagheri Kani will also become the new chief nuclear negotiator” – an aggravating factor given that Bagheri Kani is a staunch critic, if not opponent, of the nuclear deal 2015 is.
The second diplomat has also noticed a possible change in Iran’s attitude.
Earlier, Iran had expressed its openness to a plan whereby both it and the US would take carefully coordinated steps to return to the 2015 accord. Now, the diplomat said, “Iran appears to want the US to do all of its duties first,” which means a full withdrawal of sanctions before Tehran cuts its nuclear ambitions.
The diplomat called the change “a significant deviation”.
Recent comments by Iranian leaders convey a more uncompromising approach, suggesting that Iran may be calling for more sanctions than was originally granted under the original 2015 deal.
In his speech to the UN General Assembly, Raisi criticized America’s “hegemonic system” and called for the US to “lift all oppressive sanctions”
Time is running out
Meanwhile, Iran is increasing its nuclear capabilities.
According to Eric Brewer, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the country could have enough weapons-grade uranium to make an atomic bomb in “a few months”.
However, he added that later on, Iran “still needs to convert this material into the nuclear core and package it with explosives and other components to make an atomic bomb, which would all take longer.”
For its part, Iran continues to insist that its nuclear program be peaceful.
More worrying among experts is the scientific know-how that Iran has gained in recent years in expanding its nuclear program, for example on the operation of modern centrifuges or the production of uranium metal. This knowledge is irreversible and could help Iran to build an atomic bomb faster in the future.
The US has therefore warned Iran several times that its patience is not limitless. Speaking to reporters after the UN General Assembly, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed that the time window for the “return to mutual compliance is not unlimited”.
US diplomats emphasize in private briefings that there is no special ultimatum or a red line. But there could come a moment when American negotiators feel that the benefits of a hypothetical nuclear deal with Iran cannot be restored and confidence will be lost, they say.
But the money …
Despite the many uncertainties, there are strong incentives for Iran to return to negotiations in Vienna at some point.
Iran’s ailing economy needs sanctions, and the ability to export more oil and regain access to frozen currency reserves could earn the country around $ 100 billion, according to Eurasia Group estimates.
“I still think that Iran will eventually agree to return to the table in Vienna, perhaps as early as October, but I assume that the talks will be difficult,” said the second senior diplomat.