Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Returning to the Iran nuclear deal … a long, bumpy and insecure journey


It took seven years between a senior US diplomatic meeting with his Iranian counterpart in the summer of 2008, to conclude the nuclear agreement aimed at preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
No one expects that this same long period will pass to make sure the two sides are able to revive the agreement from which former US President Donald Trump withdrew, but US and European officials say that the road will be long and arduous, if the two sides start moving on it.

Last Thursday, President Joe Biden’s administration said it was ready to send its special envoy, Rob Mali, to meet with Iranian officials and discuss ways to return to the agreement reached by Tehran and six world powers.

Although Tehran initially gave mixed signals, its Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, took a hard-line approach on Sunday, saying that “the United States will not be able to return to the nuclear agreement before the sanctions are lifted.”

The whole point of the agreement is for Iran to reduce its uranium enrichment program, so that it becomes more difficult to store fissile material sufficient for the production of a nuclear weapon, in exchange for the easing of US economic and other sanctions applied to it, and Iran denies seeking to possess nuclear weapons.

In theory, it will be difficult to define a path to revive the agreement, the details of which are located in 110 pages representing its provisions and annexes, and on the ground this will represent a challenge for two reasons, the first of which is the dozens of sanctions that Trump imposed on Iran after withdrawing from the agreement in May 2018, and the second is the steps that Tehran applied it and violated the agreement, in response to Trump’s decisions, after waiting more than a year.

Although the two sides have so far focused publicly on the issue of who takes the first step to revive the agreement, as each insists that the other be the initiator, a US official said it is possible to coordinate arrangements for the steps.

He said, “I do not think that the question of who starts will be the most difficult issue.” “The difficulty lies in determining how each side sees commitment to the agreement,” he said, referring to the identification of the American sanctions that can be lifted and the question of the steps that Iran has taken, so can all of them be reversed. ?

Imprisoned and proxy factions
The nuclear agreement concluded by Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States called for Washington to lift sanctions related to the nuclear issue only on Tehran, and after withdrawing from the agreement, Trump imposed dozens of new sanctions for other reasons, including accusing Iran of supporting terrorism.

Experts say Biden will face political risks and it may be impossible to meet Tehran’s demands to lift these sanctions, in light of criticism from Republicans and perhaps some of his party’s Democrats.

“This is a very politically sensitive issue in the United States because a number of them have been deliberately applied under the powers of terrorism,” said Henry Rom of the Eurasia Research Group. “My negotiation team will have to go through an extensive process to determine what will remain and what will be lifted.”

Another challenge is Iran’s support for factions in the Middle East region that it works for, including those accused of launching attacks on US forces.

In the most dangerous of these attacks in a year, a missile attack on US-led forces in northern Iraq on Monday resulted in the death of a civilian contractor and the injury of an American soldier, which makes it more difficult for Washington to appear as concessions to Iran.

Another difficulty is the US desire to release Americans imprisoned in Iran, an issue that White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said, “Washington has started discussions about it with Iranian officials.”

It is possible to reverse some of Iran’s steps that violate the nuclear agreement, such as enriching uranium by more than 3.67%, and increasing its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, but it may not be easy to return to other steps.

Among these steps are the experiences gained from research and development activities using advanced centrifuges, which would help Iran raise uranium enrichment to 90%, the degree necessary to manufacture a nuclear weapon, if it decided to do so. Robert Einhorn of the Brookings Institution said: “How? Can the knowledge they have gained be undone?

The authorities in Tehran also face a delicate choice of responding to any initiative from the Biden administration, as it prepares for presidential elections in June, in which turnout is likely to be a referendum on the religious establishment, amid growing feelings of discontent over economic difficulties.

The fragile Iranian economy, which has been increased by US sanctions and the Coronavirus pandemic, has not left the ruling elite with few options but to negotiate, but the final decision is the decision of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but it is not clear until now if the two sides can return to the negotiating table.

On Tuesday, Iran threatened more steps to reduce its commitment to the nuclear deal, by stopping sudden inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and experts said that “this may not necessarily spoil the chances of negotiation, but it increases the challenges.”

A French diplomatic source said: “Despite everything, we are still in a precarious situation, and its risks will increase in the coming days. The important thing is to quickly revive diplomatic efforts.”



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