US and Iran talk tough as faltering nuclear talks enter dangerous phase

Experts warn next nuclear crisis could be just months away as room for compromise shrinks

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei bided his time before publicly offering his seal of approval to the 2015 nuclear accord Tehran signed with world powers. But as moderate Iranian politicians and their supporters celebrated, hoping the deal would usher in a new era for the pariah state, the supreme leader made clear his mistrust of the US, the other prime actor behind the agreement.

In an open letter published a day after Iranian, American, European, Russian and Chinese officials sat across a table at Vienna's palatial Palais Coburg Hotel for their first "joint commission" meeting, Khamenei was predicting its failure even as it was born. Writing to then-president Hassan Rouhani, a staunch proponent of the deal, he accused Washington of harbouring an "eternal hostility" against the Islamic republic, while charging the Obama administration with deception and "bullying diplomacy".

Six years on, the deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known by the acronym JCPOA – appears irrevocably broken. Mistrust between Tehran and Washington is deeper than ever –the legacy of former US president Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to unilaterally abandon the deal and impose hundreds of sanctions on the Islamic republic. Tehran responded by aggressively accelerating its nuclear programme.

Now, with Iran enriching uranium at its highest ever levels and the language hardening on all sides, experts warn that the next nuclear crisis – the very thing the JCPOA was designed to prevent – could be just months away. And with hardliners, who were always sceptical of the deal, in control of all arms of the Islamic state for the first time in almost a decade, the sentiments expressed by Khamenei in 2015 loom larger than ever over the process.

“The US and its allies know very well that the era of big bluffing and giving empty promises ... is over,” says Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of Kayhan newspaper, a mouthpiece for Iran’s hardliners.

Negotiators from all sides spent most of December in talks in Vienna in a last-ditch attempt to salvage a deal that western diplomats consider the best option to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapon. They made meagre progress before pausing in mid-December, but restarted last Monday.

That round of talks followed a five-month hiatus after the election of President Ebrahim Raisi, a Khamenei protégé, in June. The elections marked the end of the Rouhani era and cemented the hardliners' hold on power. But almost as soon as they started, American and European officials accused Iran's new government of reneging on compromises made during indirect talks with the US in the first half of 2021.

Iranian officials insist they are serious about reviving the JCPOA, blaming the US and European powers for the lack of progress.

"The difference between President Rouhani and now, is that if you are not assured [the accord will be fully implemented] I don't think you are going to have a deal," says Mohsen Baharvand, Iran's ambassador in London. "We aren't going to accept threats ... [if] the window is narrowing, then let it be."

‘Multiple ticking time bombs’

From the perspective of the Iranian regime, Khamenei’s early misgivings and distrust were vindicated by Trump’s decision to launch his “maximum pressure” campaign against the republic even as Tehran complied with the deal. Once burnt, Khamenei – who has the final say on all key decisions in the Islamic republic – will not allow history to be repeated, say analysts.

In Washington, Biden has to navigate his own delicate path between securing an agreement that would enable him to fulfil his pledge to return the US to the deal and lift many sanctions on Iran if it fully complies with the accord, while not appearing soft on what the US political establishment considers a rogue state.

Mediating between the two foes are the EU, Germany, France and the UK – who stuck with the accord and opposed Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign. But there are fears that the gap between the protagonists is too wide to bridge.

This is why diplomats and experts warn that the room for compromise on both sides is narrowing to months if not weeks. A possible stop-gap measure could be a “less-for-less” arrangement under which Iran agrees to freeze its nuclear activity at current levels in return for some economic benefits. But if such a deal was struck – Iran has rejected the possibility so far and insists only the same JCPOA should be resurrected – it would only leave the bigger issues festering.

"It would give everyone time, but we are sitting on multiple ticking time bombs," says Sanam Vakil, an Iran expert at the Chatham House think tank. "If this is not contained quickly, we are snowballing towards a major crisis."

Should diplomacy fail, the US and its allies have options. They could seek a resolution to censor Iran at the next governor's board meeting of the IAEA, the nuclear watchdog, scheduled for March. That would then go to the UN Security Council, which would determine what action to take.

Another option is for a security council member – one that is a party to the accord signed by the US, UK, France, Germany, China and Russia – to trigger "snapback" international sanctions that were lifted after the deal was first implemented by notifying the security council of Iran's non-compliance. That move could only be blocked if all council members rejected a resolution.

That would provide the international legitimacy for a de facto return to Trump's maximum pressure campaign, which drove the US and Iran to the brink of war after the killing in a US drone strike of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. It would also signal the final death knell for an agreement that took years of tortuous negotiations to seal and risk reigniting tensions across the Middle East.

Ali Vaez, analyst at the Crisis Group think tank, says the West's options range from "unattractive to outright ugly".

If diplomacy fails and the US switches course, “the Iranians are likely to take the gloves off”, he adds, warning of an escalation in hostilities in the region.

"With the lessons learned from Afghanistan, I think the Iranians believe the US threshold for pain is pretty low," Vaez says. "In that scenario, you could have a corridor of chaos that stretches from the borders of Afghanistan all the way to Israel. "

Iran’s limited leverage

During the Trump presidency, Tehran retaliated to US hostility by using regional proxies and its elite Revolutionary Guards to attack American forces in Iraq, and was accused of sabotaging tankers in the Gulf and launching missile and drone strikes against oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia.

An Iranian analyst says if UN sanctions were reimposed, Tehran could move to enrich uranium from the current purity level of 60 per cent to 90 per cent – weapons-grade level. It could also withdraw from the Treaty on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), he warns.

“The Iranians would have to increase their leverage,” the analyst says. “Iran really doesn’t have any leverage on the table other than this – the capacity of its nuclear enrichment.”

The time Tehran would need to accumulate sufficient highly enriched uranium for one nuclear bomb is already estimated to be down from one year, when the JCPOA was fully implemented, to about one month – although experts say it would take Iran much longer to weaponise a nuclear missile or other device.

Rafael Grossi, director-general of the IAEA, says the agency does not have "any information that Iran has a nuclear weapons programme [or] has any activity leading to a nuclear weapons programme".

But the shorter the breakout time becomes, the greater the risk of the US or Israel taking pre-emptive action to launch attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities. American commanders have already warned that the US has a robust range of military options to deter Iran. Israel has ordered its military to prepare for potential strikes against the country.

A senior US official says Biden believes diplomacy “is the best path” to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapon. But the official adds that “given the ongoing advances in Iran’s nuclear programmes ... the president has asked us to be prepared in the event that diplomacy fails and we must turn to other options”.

The US and Iran have a history of managing these crises, a western diplomat says, as both sides seek to avoid full-blown war. The difference today, however, is the scale of Iran’s nuclear development, and whatever the outcome of the talks, the research and development Tehran has gained over the past two years cannot be reversed.

Sir John Sawers, a former head of Britain's MI6 intelligence agency, says the "very strong preference" of Biden would be not to take military action. But, he says, "unless they are prepared to, then they know the Iranians will just continue to march forward.

“As we move through without a nuclear deal, the Iranians will want to edge forward and never do anything so dramatic that it’s a casus belli. But the Americans will realise they’ve reached the limit under Trump’s sanctions and the only real alternative is a precision military strike,” Sawers adds. “But you don’t really know what it is you have to strike to remove all the military components of a nuclear programme.”

Doing nuclear deals

Iran has harboured nuclear ambitions for decades. In 1970 it ratified the NPT and four years later the last shah, backed by the US, established an atomic energy agency and unveiled plans to build nuclear reactors. After the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran’s theocratic leaders continued to pursue their own atomic programme, insisting it was for civilian purposes only – as they do today.

As international concerns about the republic's intentions mounted, Tehran agreed in 2004 to suspend all enrichment-related activities after talks with European powers. But that agreement was doomed by Washington's refusal to accept Iran conducting any nuclear activity. The 2005 election of hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad led to a further deterioration of relations with the west.

Two factors altered the landscape: former US president Barack Obama’s decision to shift Washington’s position to accepting that Iran could conduct some nuclear activity as long as it did not pursue a bomb, and the 2013 election of Rouhani.

A pragmatist, the Iranian president staked his legacy on the JCPOA, viewing it as a vehicle to attract foreign investment and tentatively re-engage with the west. For Obama it was arguably his biggest foreign policy gamble: many international sanctions on Iran were lifted in return for Tehran curbing its nuclear activity.

After the JCPOA was implemented in 2016, Iran's runaway inflation dropped to single figures, its crude exports rose from 1.4 million barrels a day to 2.1 million the following year and western companies eyed investment opportunities in a resource-rich nation of 85 million people. Airbus and Boeing were granted licences to sell aircraft to Iran; Total won gas contracts; and Renault-Nissan and Peugeot secured joint ventures with Iranian carmakers.

But in Tehran, frustration festered because the republic never secured the full economic benefits it expected as separate sanctions related to human rights and terrorism remained. That meant many foreign companies and banks remained wary of conducting business in Iran. Then Trump did his utmost to collapse the JCPOA, strangling the economy and destroying the whole premise of the deal just 18 months after its implementation.

Tehran remained in the accord, but aggressively expanded its nuclear programme. It has developed advanced centrifuges; is enriching uranium way above the 3.67 per cent agreed in the JCPOA, and its stockpile of enriched uranium is more than 11 times the 300kg ceiling agreed.

After Biden’s election, progress was made during six rounds of negotiations in Vienna in the first half of 2021 to salvage the deal. But after Raisi’s election, the talks stalled and with a new team of negotiators in place and Rouhani in the political wilderness, Tehran’s position hardened.

When Raisi’s team finally sat down at the negotiating table, it submitted new proposals and reiterated demands that experts say, while understandable, would be impossible for Washington to meet: guarantees that no future US administration would unilaterally withdraw from the accord and that all sanctions stymieing economic activity, not just those imposed by Trump, be lifted before Tehran reverses its nuclear gains.

When the Iranians paused the talks in mid-December, European diplomats warned that despite some “technical” progress “we are rapidly reaching the end of the road for this negotiation”.

Kelsey Davenport, at the Arms Control Association, a US-based non-partisan organisation, says the danger is that Tehran miscalculates its leverage as the clock ticks down to the moment Washington is "forced to make a decision about whether or not the nuclear deal can be viably restored".

“That window is very tight,” she says. “I don’t think Iran is interested in getting a bomb ... it’s more about preserving possibilities and keeping the options open.”

Tehran’s stance is partly a reflection of the belief among hardliners that they successfully weathered Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, say Iranian analysts, even if it came at a huge economic cost for the state and its citizens.

Regime officials talk proudly of a “resistance economy” in which the republic - which has endured decades of sanctions – focused on domestic production and boosting non-oil trade with neighbouring countries. That strengthened the resolve of hardliners that if they cannot strike a deal on their terms, the republic will survive, if not thrive, even if sanctions are tightened.

"The economy cannot be monitored unless Biden puts one soldier every 50 metres along Iran's porous borders," says Saeed Laylaz, an Iranian economist. "Iran's underground economy constitutes between 30 to 50 per cent of the GDP. It's huge."

Whether some form of the JCPOA survives will rest heavily on convincing the supreme leader that the US will stick to it.

“Khamenei knows that Iran’s public opinion wants a way out of this crisis, but he also knows from experience how Americans treat an international agreement,” says Mohammad-Sadegh Javadi-Hesar, a reformist politician. “It’s a legitimate question to ask Mr America: ‘how can we be reassured that you won’t walk out again when Republicans say they would tear up a deal?’ Why should Iran sign a deal which is going to be destroyed in a few years?”

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Timeline: plenty to talk about

Oct 18th, 2015 Iran, the US, the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China formally adopt the nuclear deal, which leads to Tehran curbing its atomic activities in return for the lifting of many sanctions on the Islamic republic

May 8th, 2018 US president Donald Trump announces he is formally withdrawing the US from the nuclear accord, and his administration begins imposing waves of sanctions on Iran

May 8th, 2019 Iran announces it will no longer be bound by limitations on its nuclear activity under the JCPOA and begins increasing its activity

June 13th, 2019 Iran is accused of sabotaging tankers in the Gulf

June 20th, 2019 Iran shoots down a US drone as tensions escalate

September 14th, 2019 Iran is accused of orchestrating a missile and drone attack on oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, temporarily knocking out half the kingdom's crude output

January 3rd, 2020 Trump orders a drone strike that kills Qassem Soleimani, Iran's most powerful military leader, in Baghdad. Days later, Iran retaliates by firing dozens of missiles at an Iraqi army base hosting US troops

April-June 2021 The Biden administration holds six indirect rounds of talks with Iran in Vienna, mediated by the EU, intended to revive the nuclear deal

June 18th, 2021 Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric, wins Iran's presidential election

November 29th, 2021 Iran and US resume indirect negotiations over the nuclear deal in Vienna – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

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