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Persistent Intransigence

Receding chances of reviving nuclear talks despite US messages to Iran

13 February 2023

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in a joint press conference with his Qatari counterpart, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, on January 29, 2023, announced that Tehran received messages from the other parties of the nuclear deal through the foreign minister of Qatar. He thanked Qatar for its goodwill in bringing all parties to the final steps of the agreement. 


Existing Attempts

Although the US Administration showed less interest in talks to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, which has stalled since August 2022, signs recently surfaced that Washington continues to uphold the diplomatic option. This was evidenced in the following developments: 


1. Sending messages through Doha:

The top Qatari diplomat explained that Washington handed him messages to convey to Iran. He called the involved parties to return to the nuclear deal. Head of the Iranian Parliament's nuclear committee Sara Fallahi claimed that the US proposed direct talks with Iran over the nuclear deal in the messages sent via Qatar. The claim was confirmed neither by the Qatari foreign minister nor by Washington. It should be noted Qatar was chosen to convey the messages because it maintains good relations with both Washington and Tehran.


2. Talks between US and Iranian envoys: 

The US Special Envoy to Iran, Robert Malley, met with Iran's ambassador to the United Nations Saeed Iravani more than three times in the past two months. According to some assessments, the two sides either exchanged messages about a potential nuclear deal or discussed the imprisonment of US citizens n Iran. Yet, maybe also how the US is urging Tehran to stop supplying Russia with drones in support of its war against Ukraine.  

It should be noted that the US Department of State did not deny the meetings and even said that the US had its channels to communicate messages to the Iranian side but did not reveal the content of the messages. 


3. Washington's insistence on diplomacy:

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, on January 29, 2023, emphasized that the US Administration's preferred path to deal with the concerns about Iran's nuclear program is through diplomacy. The US top diplomat reiterated the same message again the next day. Moreover, although President Joe Biden, on November 4, 2022, said the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is "dead", he added that "we are not gonna announce it", a sign that Washington wants to keep the door ajar for negotiations.


Revealing Implications

The US positions reveal the following implications: 


1. Keeping diplomacy as an option:

Keeping communication channels between the United States and Iran is a sign that Washington continues to place bets on reviving the nuclear deal with Tehran. Furthermore, in his November 4 statement, some believe that Biden only wanted to respond to growing criticism from the House of Representatives. Controlled by a Republican majority, they blamed his administration for what they believe is a soft and indecisive policy toward Iran.  

Washington's position can be attributed to several dynamics, including an unwillingness to face the hardest option of all: the use of military force against Iran, a scenario with a price that the Biden Administration is not prepared to afford. It also tries to avoid closing the door on negotiations, primarily because Biden prefers this approach to Iran. 


2. Reinforcing credibility for the military option:

Although Washington tried to keep diplomatic channels with Iran open, it conducted the Juniper Oak 2023, the largest-ever joint military drill with Israel, from January 23-26, 2023, to send threats to Iran. The combined drill simulated strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. That is to say, Washington wanted to warn Iran that if it continued to be intransigent in the escalation of its nuclear activities, the option would be to use military force against its nuclear facilities. The US Special Envoy to Iran reiterated the same option on January 31, 2023. 


3. Resuming sabotage operations:

Washington seeks to ratchet up pressure on Tehran through Israel's sabotage operations in Iran's heartland, striking a military-industrial facility of Iran's ministry of defence in central Isfahan province on January 28 using three drones. Iran accused Israel of being behind the drone attack. 


The attack was carried out while three top US officials were visiting Israel. Willia Burns, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The high-profile visit is a sign of coordination between the United States and Israel about the attack, mainly because US sources were the first to attribute the attack to Israel in statements carried by the Wall Street Journal. 


Through these sabotage operations, Israel aims to slow down Iran's strategic military and nuclear projects and respond to Tehran's continued efforts to enhance its military capabilities and increase uranium enrichment. But satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press showed the damage to the facility's roof. That damage corresponded to footage aired by Iranian state television immediately after the attack, showing at least two holes in the building's roof. This means that the facility was not severely damaged and that the attack did not place the required amount of pressure on Iran but uncovered Iran's success in providing protection for its strategic facilities. 


4. Washington's efforts to keep Iran away from Russia.:

Washington's attempts to revive the nuclear deal with Iran are believed to be driven by its efforts to keep Iran away from Russia, weaken their military cooperation and deprive Russia of Iranian-made drones. Moreover, it should be noted that Washington sought to employ Iran's support for Russia to push the European Union to adopt a stiffer position against Iran. The result was that the EU imposed a series of sanctions on Iranian officials, and the European Parliament urged the designation of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group. 


Chances of Reviving the Nuclear Deal


Given the United States' position on resuming talks with Iran, it can be said that the chances of reviving the stalled nuclear deal can take either one of the following trajectories:  


1. Iran's willingness to resume negotiations:

Iran might bow to recent pressures from the United States and Israel and return to the nuclear talks. This possibility is reinforced by Iran's foreign minister Amir-Abdollahian's announcement, during a visit to Muscat on December 28, 2022, that the window for reaching an agreement "will not always be open." The visit was regarded as an Iranian attempt to revive the talks through Oman, primarily because Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani earlier made two visits to Doha and Moscow for the same reason. 

On the other hand, the European Union's postponement of designating Iran's IRGC as a terrorist organization is perhaps an attempt to allow Iran to resume nuclear talks with the United States. It should be noted that this option will be challenging, given that a semi-final draft of the nuclear deal is already in place, and Western countries call on Iran to accept this draft if it is serious about reviving the nuclear deal. Iran, however, rejects these demands. 


2. Failure of the talks:

To date, all efforts to revive the nuclear deal have failed because Iran reiterates that it is not negotiating out of weakness and is unwilling to give any concessions under threats. This indicates Iran's insistence on amending the final draft of the nuclear deal, a demand that the West needs to respond to, mainly because it is now evident that Iran's approach to the negotiations is characterized by foot-dragging and procrastination to buy time. 


On the other hand, Iran continues its nuclear escalation. In a confidential report leaked in February 2023, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran has made an undeclared change to the interconnection between the two clusters of advanced machines enriching uranium to up to 60% purity, close to weapons grade, at its Fordow plant. The move is part of Tehran's attempts to accelerate uranium enrichment to military-grade of 90% purity. Consequently, with no deal in place, the chances of reviving the nuclear deal will diminish if Iran continues to advance its nuclear capabilities. 


On the other side, the US Congress is threatening to adopt a stiffer approach to Iran, making it harder for any future agreement to suspend sanctions already imposed on Iran, especially over its nuclear and missile programs. Overall, this would make efforts to revive the nuclear deal even more difficult. 


In conclusion, it can be said that Washington has not entirely closed the door on the talks, as evidenced by continued communications with Iranian officials through various channels. However, a return to negotiations is still unlikely. That is because the Iranian regime insists on putting obstacles in the way of reviving the nuclear deal, which means the coming period will see a surge in tensions between Iran and Israel, especially if Israel plans more attacks on Iran's strategic facilities.