On Wednesday, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, a dapper greybeard called Ali Bagheri Kani, presented western powers with his compliments for the season and formal proposals for the revival of the nuclear deal Donald Trump called “horrible”.
There were two documents: one about Iran’s nuclear intentions, which Tehran still claims are peaceful. And another about sanctions, which it wants lifted in their entirety.
No one believes the first and no one (apart from Iran) can accept the second. Even so, it’s Washington’s move. The US is not sitting directly across the table from Iran in talks that resumed this week in Austria, but it’s integral to a process that will go no further if President Biden withdraws.
His envoy, Robert Malley, is in Vienna. So are 40 Iranian negotiators who Kani says are ready to go to work. (No kidding. They are installed in the all-suite, five star Palais Coburg Hotel and Vienna can be delightful at this time of year.)
It will be tempting for the Americans to walk away. Iran knew that to demand the scrapping of sanctions as a precondition would be unacceptable, and has made the demand anyway. But flouncing carries risks for the West, chief among them that Iran acquires the bomb.
It’s close. Israeli sources have been telling the US that Iran is taking steps to produce 90 per cent enriched uranium, which is practically weapons grade. Successive US presidents have sworn Iran will not cross the nuclear threshold on their watch, and the whole reason Malley is in Vienna is that Biden doesn’t want to be the one who lets it happen – or lets Iran get so close to making nuclear weapons that Israel launches unilateral air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.
There is a theory that a nuclear Iran would not be all bad. Ray Takeyh, a veteran analyst who served briefly in the Obama administration, wrote recently in Foreign Affairs that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons was inevitable but would backfire. A regional nuclear arms race would encircle it with hair-trigger existential threats, and economic sanctions would make life even worse for ordinary Iranians, not better.
“When [the regime] finally succeeds and finds out it yields no strategic benefit and further aggravates its economic dilemmas,” Takeyh wrote, “it will confront explosive domestic political blowback.”
The problem with this analysis is that for more than 40 years those who’ve bet on the Iranian theocracy collapsing under domestic pressure have lost. Unlike North Korea, modern Iran tolerates a certain amount of dissent, but the dissidents have never come close to removing the mullahs from power. A more plausible scenario, should Iran reach or cross the nuclear threshold, is that the US president is branded an appeaser and angry regional reaction unites Iranians behind the regime.
The alternative is the Palais Coburg alternative – keep Kani talking, with the stick of more sanctions and the carrot of relief. But there’s a problem with this strategy too. The Iranians want sanctions relief, but not at any cost. They’ve gone down this route before and it was a dead end. They signed a deal in 2015. Three years later Donald Trump withdrew. So did foreign investors on whom Iran was relying for its economic rebirth. In their place the US imposed sanctions more punitive than before.
Trump called this a strategy of maximum pressure. The regime called it economic warfare and compared its effects to those of the Iran-Iraq war. The analogy is apt because maximum pressure was supposed to bring Iran to its knees, and failed. Like the war, it consolidated the political and commercial power of the Revolutionary Guards, the clenched fist of the theocracy, whose business interests thrive in isolation when everyone else’s suffer.
This is why, even though Iran would like sanctions relief now, it’s focused on durability. “They don’t want relief for relief’s sake,” says Dr Sanam Vakil of Chatham House. “The only way it’s beneficial is if it’s durable. If international investment doesn’t come and stay, it’s not useful. The mindset is they’ve survived the worst of it, so why reverse course and lose leverage for something that could be removed again?”
The Iranians at the Palais Coburg find themselves in the interesting position of demanding something completely unacceptable and completely understandable. They don’t have the moral high ground – you lose that when you represent a homicidal police state committed to eliminating Israel – but they claim it with a straight face.
“The west needs to pay a price for having failed to uphold its part of the bargain,” Kani wrote in the FT last week. Thanks, Donald.
American maximum pressure is now being matched by the Iranian, and Israeli varieties. Yesterday the Jewish Chronicle published a spectacular purported scoop claiming Mossad persuaded ten Iranian nuclear scientists to blow up an underground centrifuge hall at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant south of Tehran earlier this year.
Some of the explosives were smuggled in inside building materials as the hall was under construction, the story claimed. Some were dropped inside the Natanz compound by a quadcopter drone and picked up by the scientists who between them put 90 per cent of the centrifuges out of action.
The story has not been widely followed up, but that doesn’t mean parts of it aren’t true. Israeli intelligence hasn’t been reluctant to go after the guts of Iran’s nuclear programme in the past. Its role in disabling a fifth of the programme’s centrifuges with the Stuxnet computer virus in 2010 is an open secret. Ditto its role in the assassination of four senior Iranian nuclear scientists since then.
But stories like yesterday’s hint at something about the future that may be more plausible than what they claim about the past. They give a flavour of non-nuclear approaches to constraining Iran if the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA), as the Vienna talks are technically known, fails.
Stand by for “arms control without agreements,” says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. If talks go nowhere Iran will have to get used to red lines being drawn in other ways. “In addition to increased sanctions, it could expect cyber as well as conventional military attacks on nuclear facilities and possibly targets of economic and military value,” Haass wrote earlier this month.
Whether Mossad movie moments could provide the basis for an actual strategy is doubtful, though. They would risk uniting not just the Iranian people but Russia and China behind the regime. As for conventional diplomacy, Haass notes that without big Iranian concessions two flaws in the original Iran nuclear deal remain: it’s time-limited and it doesn’t address missiles. This means that even if a new deal is reached it’s probably only a matter of time before Iran gets within touching distance of the nuclear threshold.
Does that mean those who believe it’s inevitable Iran will get the bomb are right? “Only if the international community does not succeed in restraining Iran through reviving the JCPOA,” says Dr Vakil.
Malley and others wandering the corridors of the Palais Coburg may have to swallow some pride with their sachertorte.
Photograph by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto