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Inconsistent Signals

Is Iran truly committed to resuming nuclear negotiations?

08 September 2023

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has urged further efforts to resurrect the nuclear deal with the West and relieve sanctions imposed on his country. This is also consistent with efforts to undermine the impact of sanctions that affect citizens' living conditions. This came during his meeting with the Iranian President and government members on Wednesday, August 30, 2023.

The Context

Several factors surround these statements, the most notable of which are as follows:

1. Tehran continues to enrich uranium at a high rate

Mohammad Eslami, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, stated on August 27, 2023, that the country's uranium enrichment is continuing under the framework provided by the Iranian Parliament. This is in response to Tehran's continuous uranium enrichment at high levels in light of the strategic initiative to counter sanctions law, ratified by the Iranian Parliament in 2020. The law requires the government to take steps to expand uranium enrichment operations above the 3.67% level authorized in the nuclear agreement signed between Iran and the P5+1 group in 2015 if the other parties do not respect the terms of the pact. Following Washington's withdrawal from the accord in 2018, Iran's uranium enrichment rate increased to around 84% in February 2023, a level close to that required to generate fuel used in the production of the atomic bomb.

These assurances came from Iran in response to revelations by The Wall Street Journal that Iran has significantly slowed the pace of stockpiling enriched uranium at high levels, as well as reduced some of its stockpiles. This means that Tehran is sending a message of not giving up the nuclear paper, the most crucial in the face of Western pressure.

2. Ballistic missile progress continues

Tehran continues to develop its ballistic missile capabilities. Majeed Ibn Al-Rida, Executive Director of the Social Welfare Organization in the Armed Forces, revealed on August 17, 2023, that Iranian missile production had increased by 64%. On August 22, 2023, the Iranian Ministry of Defense announced the addition of "Khorramshahr" and "Qassem Soleimani" ballistic missiles to the Armed Forces and Air Force. This is in addition to the latest "Mohajer 10" drone, which can fly for 24 hours at altitudes of up to 7,000 meters, at speeds of up to 210 kilometers, and with a range of up to 2,000 kilometers. This was preceded by Iran's announcement on May 6, 2023, of the production of the first solid-fueled hypersonic ballistic missile, dubbed Fattah. 

The advancement of the ballistic missile program displeases Washington and the European countries, who see it as a breach of UN Resolution No. 2231. The resolution demands the cessation of "any activity" related to ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. As a result of the development of Iran's missile program, Western parties imposed a number of sanctions on the country. The most recent was the US Treasury Department's announcement on June 6, 2023, that sanctions would be imposed on seven persons and six entities in Iran and China due to their involvement in Iran's ballistic missile program. This is in addition to informing Tehran of the European Union's plan to maintain ballistic missile sanctions, which are set to expire in October 2023 under the 2015 nuclear agreement.

3. Talks about informal agreements between Tehran and Washington

Iran and the United States have finally agreed to move five American detainees in Iran to house arrest in preparation for their release. This is in exchange for the release of USD 6 billion in blocked Iranian funds from South Korean oil revenues, as well as the release of two Iranian detainees in the United States for violating sanctions placed on Tehran. However, media sources have stated that these understandings also included limiting uranium enrichment to high levels and halting Tehran's sale of drones to Moscow for use in the conflict against Ukraine. This is in exchange for easing restrictions on Iranian oil exports, and the release of Iranian funds held overseas, as was the case with Iranian funds in South Korea and Iraq. Tehran denied the accuracy of the news regarding slowing the rate of uranium enrichment and the decrease in its military cooperation with Russia, following a visit to Moscow by an Iranian military delegation led by Commander of the Land Forces Brigadier General Kiumars Heydari to meet with his counterpart Oleg Salyukov. Moscow also reiterated that bilateral cooperation would not be subject to the dictates of Washington and its minions.

Multiple Indicators

The recent statements by Iran's Supreme Leader show a number of indicators, the most significant of which are as follows:

1. Maintaining the option of resuming negotiations

Despite Iran's solidified stance on contentious issues with Washington and Western parties, it has confirmed its willingness to return to the negotiating table with those countries. This was evident in recent Iranian leader statements, which were preceded by similar remarks on June 11, 2023, in which Khamenei stated that he had no opposition to reaching a compromise with the West on Iran's nuclear program. Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi also pledged to resume negotiations to resurrect the nuclear agreement before heading to participate in the BRICS summit in South Africa on August 24, 2023.

Tehran may have been enticed by its recent agreement with Washington regarding the exchange of prisoners and the subsequent release of its frozen funds in South Korea. This is in addition to the possibility of reaching an agreement on the nuclear program, which would lift the yoke of the sanctions imposed on Tehran. This is especially in light of the aforementioned statement by the head of the Iranian Nuclear Energy Authority about Tehran preparing for an upcoming visit by the Assistant Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which may indicate the possibility of Iran's cooperation with the agency, particularly in the investigation into four secret nuclear sites. Iran clarified two of them in May 2023, in light of the Agency's Board of Governors' next quarterly meeting in September 2023.

2. Washington's adherence to diplomacy

The United States continues to pursue diplomacy in dealing with Iran since it is a preferred option for US President Joe Biden's administration, which took over the White House in January 2021. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken welcomed what was reported about Iran's slowing pace of uranium enrichment, though he did not confirm the validity of the news - which is consistent with previous statements confirming his country's adherence to the diplomatic option in dealing with Iran. 

This, along with the involvement of American officials in direct and indirect negotiations with Iranian officials in both New York and Muscat in recent months, expresses the American tendency to continue to prefer this option in dealing with Iran despite opposition from members of Congress, who are pressuring the Biden administration to take a more assertive stance with Iran.

3. Attempting to avoid further protests

These statements by Khamenei indicate the Iranian regime's desire to contain citizens' dissatisfaction with the deteriorating living and economic conditions caused by the continuation of sanctions. This is particularly true as the first anniversary of the protests that erupted in Iran in mid-September 2022 approaches following the death of the young Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini. During discussions with government officials, Khamenei emphasized that cutting inflation is the most crucial indicator for lifting the sanctions, expressing his support for Raisi's government's efforts to decrease the impact of the sanctions on citizens' lives. 

The Iranian leadership is concerned about repeated protests, especially since demonstrators' demands have not been met, implying that the reasons for these protests still existent. As a result, the regime is currently attempting to win external benefits, such as membership in economic blocs like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and BRICS, while conducting massive security campaigns against activists and opponents internally. 

4. Increasing the military option's legitimacy

Although Washington uses diplomacy to engage with Iran, this is done in tandem with sending threatening messages to the country. Recently, the US has moved to strengthen its military presence in the region to prevent Iran from seizing and assaulting ships and commercial tankers passing through the region's primary channels, the Arabian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. For example, the US announced sending 3,000 marines to guard the tankers from Iranian forces, as well as the deployment of F-16 and F-35 fighter aircraft, battleships, and other military assets to the region.

Israel has also resumed its attacks on Iranian militia sites inside Syria in recent weeks to prevent Iran from using Syria as a front to threaten Israel's security. It bombed Aleppo's airport on August 28, 2023, causing damage to its runway and rendering it inoperable. Three locations in Damascus' neighborhood had been bombed a week before, killing two individuals. 

There is little doubt that Washington is pressuring Iran with these means, warning that if it does not demonstrate flexibility in its terms in the discussions, the alternative will be a military escalation against it.

Expected Scenarios

These developments may result in one of the following outcomes:

1. Reaching a partial agreement

Given the American and Iranian sides' continuous insistence on returning to negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program, the two parties will likely reach a partial agreement. The latter will contribute to slowing the pace of development of the Iranian nuclear program and preventing it from reaching levels that would allow the production of a nuclear bomb. This is in exchange for Washington easing some of its sanctions against Iran, particularly those related to releasing Iranian funds abroad or allowing the export of oil. Perhaps this scenario confirms the notion that Tehran has to alleviate the severe economic and living consequences of sanctions on citizens, alleviating pressure on the regime. Washington may accept this solution because it will not require congressional approval. The American administration has also partially tested deals with Tehran by negotiating an agreement on the exchange of prisoners without significant resistance from Congress.

2. Failing to return to negotiations

Iran's ongoing development of its nuclear and missile programs, as well as the supply of drones to Russia, may result in Washington and the European parties becoming more severe toward Iran, as well as a reluctance to strike any accord with it, exposing their governments to severe domestic criticism. Furthermore, the proximity of the US presidential elections in 2024 may postpone any American or European attempt to strike an agreement with Iran. This is in addition to the fact that the US may require knowledge of the results of the impending elections. The election of a Republican president increases the likelihood of any agreement achieved between Tehran and Washington collapsing, as happened during Trump's presidency and his withdrawal from the 2015 accord.

It may be claimed that the possibilities of the American and Iranian parties returning to the nuclear accord are still viable, but each is trying to score as many points as possible against the other. The continuous communication between officials from both parties through various channels, as well as the continuation of Gulf mediation through the Sultanate of Oman and the State of Qatar to bring the two sides closer together, are proof of this. However, this does not exclude the coming period from witnessing tensions in relations between the Iranian-American and Israeli sides, whether in Syria, Iraq, or the Gulf.