RIP Iranian Nuclear Deal?
    Opinion by Newsweek

    WORLD  05 June 2023 - 23:01

    Newsweek has published an opinion piece arguing that the US and Iran have trapped themselves in a diplomatic maze with no exit point. Caliber.Az reprints the article.

    The Iranian nuclear program remains a heavy albatross around the Biden administration's neck. The United States and its European allies haven't engaged in substantive negotiations with Tehran on the nuclear file since last September when the Iranians walked away from what Washington said was the best deal they were likely to get. The US and Iran have spent the last 10 months blaming each other for the impasse, urging one another to be cooperative and acquiring more leverage in the event talks do resume.

    The odds don't look promising. This week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued its most recent quarterly report on the state of Iran's nuclear work. Its findings: Iran increased the quantity of its high-enriched uranium by 27 per cent over the last three months, and its total enriched uranium stockpile is now at 4,745 kilograms, more than 15 times what it was permitted under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). All of this comes as the Iranians are constructing an underground centrifuge production facility near the nuclear facility at Natanz—a facility that will be so deep that not even Washington's bunker-buster bombs would be able to destroy it.

    All of this comes as the US has bigger priorities, at least from the Biden administration's perspective. Ensuring Ukraine has the resources it needs to push Russian forces out of their country and managing a US-China relationship that could use a long therapy session get top billing. Washington has been content pretending the Iranian nuclear issue doesn't exist or would magically go away. In January, Secretary of State Antony Blinken went as far as to say that reviving the nuclear deal hadn't been "on the agenda as a practical matter" for months. President Biden even said last December that the deal was "dead."

    Iran is primarily at fault here. Iranian negotiators could have ended this saga last summer, when there was a draft agreement on the table that would have given them the sanctions relief they so desperately wanted. Instead of taking "yes" for an answer, Tehran laid on additional demands, which included the IAEA dropping all of its investigations on Iran's past nuclear work and eliciting a concrete commitment that a future US president wouldn't re-impose sanctions like former President Donald Trump did.

    The US doesn't get off scot-free either. Over time, the White House began meshing nuclear and non-nuclear issues together, making the resumption of diplomacy even more difficult. The US didn't want to be seen as offering the Iranian government a financial lifeline at the same time Iranian security forces were killing unarmed protesters in the streets. Politically, it was also dicey to sit down with the same country that was selling cheap but lethal drones to Russia for its war in Ukraine (the Russians sent 54 of those "Shahed" drones into Kyiv earlier this week, according to the Ukrainian air force). Striking a deal, any deal, with Iran was always going to be a politically controversial move in the Beltway, particularly on Capitol Hill, which tends to be more interested in showmanship rather than substance. Add a bunch of Iranian drones menacing the daily lives of Ukrainians, however, and the controversy is higher than usual.

    Linking nuclear and non-nuclear issues, though, was always a mistake. It's difficult enough to arrive at a mutually-acceptable arrangement on mind-numbingly technical details like IAEA inspections, centrifuge development, the pace of financial and energy sanctions relief. But it becomes downright impossible when a precondition for continuing those tough negotiations is a marked change in Iran's entire foreign policy—something we would obviously like to have, but practically speaking is akin to shooting for the moon.

    Is the Biden administration finally recognizing that they made a mistake? Possibly. US officials are again expressing interest in getting nuclear talks with Iran back on track. Robert Malley, Biden's special envoy to Iran, told NPR this week that while the US will keep all options on the table (i.e. military force) to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, diplomacy was and still is the administration's preferred option to resolve the nuclear dispute. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who had an integral role in negotiating the JCPOA during his time in the Obama administration, invoked similar words during a speech at a Washington think tank earlier in the month. "We are going to continue to take action to, yes, deter Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and then to seek a diplomatic solution that puts this on a long-term pathway of stability," Sullivan said.

    If reports are accurate, the administration is already laying the groundwork for a resumption of diplomacy. Brett McGurk, President Biden's senior Middle East official in the White House, travelled to Oman this month to discuss how it might be possible to continue where the Americans and Iranians left off in September. It's no surprise why Washington would go through Muscat: The neutral Omanis have been one of the Middle East's most effective diplomatic facilitators, and they have a notable history of dealing with the Iranians directly.

    The US and Iran have trapped themselves in a diplomatic maze with no exit point. It doesn't appear that either country wants to kill negotiations outright since the viable alternatives, like tit-for-tat grey zone activities and outright military confrontation, are even worse. Yet both are still hesitant to embrace the mutual compromises that are required to actually make negotiations a success.

    Caliber.Az

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