Nuclear talks with Iran unlikely to yield positive outcome

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


The first week of the seventh round of talks between Iran and signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) recently concluded in Vienna. After the talks were put on hold in anticipation of the recent Iranian presidential elections, the negotiating parties finally came to together, but with seemingly irreconcilable differences. The Iranians, with a new hardline leadership in Tehran, insist on the roll back of all Trump-era sanctions as a precondition to the negotiations and have sharply resisted Western attempts to problematize Iran’s behavior in the region. Given the low expectations surrounding the talks, Israel has signaled that it is preparing to take unilateral action should Iran insist on building up its nuclear capabilities, a threat criticized by others, including Israelis, as unfeasible or a misplaced priority.   

According to numerous reports, including one by Press TV, Iranians have drawn clear lines with regard to negotiations and what steps Western countries, in particular the United States, must undertake for the talks to start in earnest: “Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian says the main goal pursued in the new round of talks between Iran and the remaining members of the 2015 nuclear deal is removal of all sanctions imposed on Tehran, adding that the Islamic Republic will not accept any requests beyond the scope of the deal. … The top Iranian diplomat also censured the incumbent occupant of the White House for reneging on his campaign promises about not following the anti-Iran policies of Trump, saying, ‘Despite the formation of a new government in the United States, not only have the illegal and unilateral sanctions remained in place, but the policy of imposing sanctions on Iran has continued to exist.’ … Iran has already clarified that the talks will not focus on nuclear issues, noting that those issues were already resolved through negotiations, which led to the conclusion of the JCPOA.” 

An editorial in the Tehran Times characterizes the talks as a “battle of wills” and the negotiation table as a “battlefield,” giving a glimpse into the Iranian perception of and likely approach to the negotiations: “The battle of the will of the negotiating parties, the day before the start of the negotiations, clearly shows which side has a serious plan to conduct a technical and principled negotiation with the aim of achieving a result in the first step of the Vienna battlefield and which side only seeks a media game and escape from adhering to its commitments. The background, knowledge and experience of the Iranian team, mainly selected from experts in the economic, monetary, financial, oil and banking fields, indicate that Iran has entered the negotiations vigorously to ‘effectively lift sanctions,’ while the Western delegations are mainly political and legal experts that seek to intensify pressure on Iran in the nuclear field and raise time-consuming and fruitless issues.” 

The Obama administration was criticized during the negotiations of the JCPOA for not taking into consideration Arab and Israeli demands. The Biden administration has promised to do a better job this time around. As a result, even though not present in Vienna, Arab countries have communicated their own list of demands, which are succinctly expressed in this Gulf News editorial: “While the talks go on in Vienna, on the ground here in the region, Iran can do so much more to provide reassurances. Firstly, the government must realize the international community will never accept a nuclear-armed Iran. So, it truly needs to stop any and all efforts to build a bomb. Secondly, Iran must give up its ballistic missiles programme, which poses a threat to regional security and could become a thorn in the sides of its neighbors. … Thirdly, Iran must initiate steps to show good neighborliness. How can it do that? By being open with its neighbors, respecting their sovereignty, and stopping any interference in their internal affairs. … The country is blessed with fertile soil and hydrocarbon wealth. If Tehran changes its policies, a whole new world of opportunities will open up for it in the region.” 

However, there is little anticipation that the talks are likely to yield positive outcomes. In fact, judging by the editorial pages of the various regional dailies, this recent round of talks has already been written off. Even more worrisome is the West’s lack of direction in responds to Iran’s firm stance. After talking with different U.S. officials at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, Arab News’ Baria Alamuddin writes that “while none of them [the officials] expected any progress, there was a dire lack of strategic thinking about what would happen when talks inevitably failed. … Reporting from within the White House suggests wholesale policy confusion in the event of negotiations failing. Non-military options are likely to be ineffective, particularly as Trump already imposed sanctions on every conceivable Iranian target.  Biden and his European counterparts desperately don’t want to countenance worst-case scenarios. Yet this flagrant squeamishness is precisely what makes the ayatollahs believe they possess the window of opportunity for nuclear breakout. … Western ambivalence and naivety have only made matters worse. Iran must be bluntly and forcefully told: If you proceed down this path, we will stop you!” 

The concern, as GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Negotiation Abel Aziz Aluwaisheg puts it in this Arab News op-ed, is that the Iranian regime may actually prefer the slow pace of the negotiations while speeding up its nuclear program: “Putting a positive spin on the failed talks with the IAEA chief makes for good domestic politics in Iran, as does putting on a show of humiliating the U.S. in Vienna and putting forward the most maximalist positions as the price for its mere return to the JCPOA talks. … There are deep concerns all round that Iran will slow-walk the negotiations in Vienna while continuing to flout IAEA obligations. … Negotiators are hoping against hope that the Vienna talks succeed in establishing a robust, verifiable regime to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. The alternatives are all gloomy: A nuclear weapons program in Iran irreversibly destabilizing the region, a nuclear arms race that no one can afford, or a devastating war that no one wants.” 

Adding fuel to the fire, Israeli officials have made it clear that they intend to use force to deny Iran’s ambition of obtaining nuclear weapons. That’s the message that appears to come from Israeli Minister of Internal Security Omer Bar-Lev, who, according to this Al Bawaba report, “threatened to use the military option to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. ‘It is clear that the military option is on the table,’ Israeli Minister of Internal Security Omer Bar-Lev told a local radio station in Tel Aviv. … Israel opposed the US return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, signed in 2015 by Iran, the US, China, Russia, France, the UK, Germany, and the EU. … On Tuesday, Israeli military spokesman Ran Kochav said the army was accelerating the pace to prevent Iran from becoming a ‘nuclear threshold’ country. ‘I do not interfere in political affairs, but as we said before, we are preparing for all possibilities,’ he said.” 

The sentiment is echoed by Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and a deputy minister in the prime minister’s office, who asserts in this Times of Israel op-ed that Israel’s timetable and threshold for undertaking military action against Iran is different than that of the European countries or of the United States. Warning regional and international partners to take Israel’s threats seriously, Oren cautions that while [Israel’s] military capabilities cannot equal America’s, we do have the means to defend ourselves. … As the nuclear talks resume, Israel will be watching to see if Iran exploits them to camouflage its march toward threshold capability. If so, irrespective of the international backlash, Israel will be forced to act. Recalling that both he and the Secretary of State are the sons of Holocaust survivors, Lapid stressed the need for nations to protect themselves against evil, and especially against an Iran sworn to destroy the Jewish state. ‘Israel reserves the right to act at any given moment, in any way,’ he said. America, and the world, should listen.” 

It turns out, however, that not everyone in Israel is convinced that the country can even carry out this threat. Yossi Melman, a journalist for the leading Israeli newspaper Harretz, proposes a gentler and more diplomatic approach to resolving the crisis while increasing Israel’s security, writing that “Israel needs to muster the courage to propose a bold and creative move, beyond a return to the Iran nuclear deal or a one-and-done strike likely to fail. As the nuclear talks with Iran resume in Vienna, Israel must try to reach an agreement with Washington, by which the U.S. will extend it a nuclear umbrella and openly acknowledge it. This is the necessary strategy as Iran sits down with five powers. All sides are pessimistic about the chances of obtaining a deal, and it is clear that Israel lacks any real and credible capability of taking military action. The proposal could be extended to Washington and Jerusalem’s allies – such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – if they so desire. The deployment of a nuclear umbrella is the ultimate guarantee of deterrence in the face of Iran’s nuclear program and, if Tehran succeeds in assembling a nuclear weapon, the possibility that Iran will threaten Israel in order to extract concessions from it. 

Many agree with Melman about the unlikely threat of Iran using nuclear weapons against Israel or other countries in the region and are more concerned about the psychological effect the possession of a nuclear weapon would have on Iran’s already intrusive regional actions. Israel Hayom’s Doron Matza writes that[a] nuclear threshold Iran is not a particularly pleasant idea, but the threat it will pose extends beyond the possibility the ayatollah regime will actively and directly use its nuclear weapons against Israel. … The more realistic threat presented by a nuclear threshold Iran concerns the possibility it will expand its regional freedom of operations and, mainly, the utilization of the umbrella provided by pro-Iran players that undermine stability in our neighborhood, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Situated directly on Israel’s border, both these players threaten its security on a regular basis and through conventional missiles, in particular.”  

Such concerns are anticipated by the Arab American Institute’s President James Zogby, who, in writing for Al Ahram, proposes that instead of spending energy and resources on the nuclear-program talks, the U.S. and its allies should do more to weaken the Iranian regime’s legitimacy at home and its ability to cause havoc in the region: “I find myself asking again why we are expending so much political capital … to address a problem that doesn’t exist, while doing nothing to address real problems plaguing the region. … [T]he real problem posed by Iran is the meddlesome role it’s playing across the region. … At this point, the P5+1 nations and their negotiators should focus on ways of assisting Iraqis and Lebanese in building non-sectarian governments that can rein in Iranian-backed militias, bringing them under the control of their respective governments. … These are the issues that need to be on the table. Rather than focusing on a bomb that doesn’t exist, we should direct diplomacy and apply economic pressure on efforts to make Iran see the benefits of becoming responsible citizens in the Gulf and Arab East by reining in their meddlesome behaviors and putting their own people’s needs first.” 

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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