Part II: Possible Negotiating Options re Iran

After months of stalled negotiations aimed at reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), the Raisi administration has finally agreed to resume nuclear talks with six world powers in Vienna from 29 November 2021. The U.S. will have observer status. The Islamic Republic, emboldened by the defeat of Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” and its own responses in the form of major nuclear advances, is now expected to use its hard-earned leverage to bargain on sanctions relief, release of frozen assets, and guarantees for Washington’s full compliance with the pact. Biden is both unwilling and unable to provide such full guarantees.

My last blog painted a rather grim prospect of any success arising from the negotiations that are about to resume with Iran. To review, the reasons are many. First and foremost, Iran has adopted an approach to the talks that go beyond the even maximalist openings of traditional Middle East negotiations. (See the 14th November editorial of President Ebrahim Raisi entitled “Operation Sanctions Defeat.”) Iran wants:

  1. All sanctions lifted, including those imposed for terrorism and human rights abuses as well as for nuclear non-compliance;
  2. Negotiations must only deal with lifting sanctions;
  3. Not only are missile technology and nuclear weaponization off the table as well as support for terrorism, but so are further concessions on nuclear enrichment;
  4. Iran is not only demanding complete sanctions relief but compensation for the effects of America withdrawing from the JCPOA;
  5. Verification must be in place – not of Iran’s reduction in its nuclear program, but of America’s actual removal of all sanctions; the process must be supervised;
  6. Washington must provide satisfactory guarantees that it will not renege on the deal as Donald Trump did in 2018;
  7. There must be penalties for failures by America to observe the terms.

The U.S. position remains unclear on the guarantees it could provide for the nuclear agreement. However, Biden is unwilling to remove the extensive sanctions imposed by Trump, though, by administrative fiat, he has made some of them moot as a gesture to build some confidence, though Iran has a past history of treating gestures of flexibility as signs of weakness.

The U.S. did release a joint statement with Germany, France and the UK on the sidelines of the G20 in Rome indicating that Washington was ready to return and stay in full compliance with the deal as long as Tehran does the same. However, the Iranian approach turns the talks topsy turvy to focus on America as the non-compliant agent. Further, some of the demands are virtually impossible to satisfy. For example, even if the agreement were to be raised to a treaty status requiring a two-thirds support by the American Senate, that is no guarantee that the U.S. could not abrogate the treaty or the President undermine its application by administratively failing to follow the requirements. There is no way to provide complete guarantees and highly unlikely that even a treaty could be forthcoming. Nevertheless, in order to advance the negotiations and offer confidence building measures, President Biden in a reverse direction is not enforcing the application of many of the sanctions.

The irony, of course, is that when the United States through administrative practices offers gestures to reverse the Trump policy of maximal economic pressure and Iran counteracts by demands that are more maximal than ever, such a dovish American approach is undermined. Support for the Biden initiative for renewal, amendment or substitution for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is also weakened.

If one listens to or reads commentators steeped in security analyses, hopes for a renewed agreement diminish starkly. However, if you listen to scholars or commentators from the peace negotiating, arms reduction or peace camps, prospects may also seem dim, but they focus on opportunities to advance the negotiations rather than cloud their vision with pessimism. This is true even though the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA) reported last week that their negotiations with the Iranians failed. In diplomatese, the talks were “inconclusive.” They did agree to continue talking. With Iran-US posturing in preparation for the 7th round of the Vienna talks, the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD) co-hosted a panel discussion titled on “Prospect of Iran Nuclear Talks” in collaboration with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) to examine the potential scenarios facing the negotiators to salvage the nuclear deal.

In the 2015 JCPOA agreement, Iran agreed to limit enrichment, permit effective inspections in exchange for sanctions relief. Since Trump cancelled America’s participation in the agreement and since his defeat, America by administrative fiat has provided limited sanctions relief. But Iran has openly enriched uranium well past the 3.67 limit to 20% and even 60% purity, the latter well within the range of providing nuclear material for a bomb. Further, Iran repeatedly interferes with the inspectors, subjecting them to humiliating bodily searches, refusing to provide access to previously unreported sites where uranium particles have been identified, replacing damaged cameras and denying access to automatic monitoring devices.

The IAEA is not the U.S. It is an independent international body to which Iran has obligations. Undermining the IAEA reinforces the impression that Iran after five months of delay is just stalling for time. Iran may simply be entering the sixth round of talks to buy more time.

What options do the negotiators have to deal with Iran? Iran wants the snap-back privileges granted to the US in 2015 JCPOA eliminated. Iran seems highly unlikely simply to endorse a renewal of JCPOA. As indicated above, under JCPOA, there is no legal way that America can provide guarantees to bind the next administration. However, changes could be made. The West could concede that only by a majority vote of the negotiating states could the snap-back provisions be initiated. There could be an agreement that snapback could not be implemented by the decision of one country. Costs could be imposed on failures of states other than Iran to live up to the agreement instead of making Iran carry the burden of ensuring no deviance from the terms of the agreement.

Even if no changes were agreed upon and the JCPOA merely reinstated, the agreement will never work if Iran continues to undermine inspections. In fact, if the right to inspect is not fully restored by the next meeting of the IAEC board in February, the IAEC can be expected to reprimand Iran – not that this would likely influence Iran’s behaviour, but it would undermine the global effort of Iran to improve its public image.

The reality is that there is unlikely to be a JCPOA2. More likely, but still improbable, there could be a series of interim agreements. After all, through American actions, the pressure of sanctions is receding. Further, the U.S. has never punished China for buying Iranian oil. In October, tankers delivered 170,000 tons of crude oil unaffected by the sanctions regime. The price of that oil over the last half-year has soared from $26 to $76 a barrel. Last month, Iran earned $90 million from oil sales and an estimated $1 billion for all of 2021. Yet Iran still needs and demands access to its frozen assets, and, even worse, compensation. Perhaps a series of interim agreements might suffice in place of JCPOA2.

An interim deal is colloquially known as “less-for-less”. In it, Iran would stop enriching its uranium further in return for formalizing sanctions now not being imposed and perhaps including other sanctions relief. Critics lambaste such a proposal as worse than returning to the JCPOA, especially since the money freed up for Iran from currently frozen funds could, and probably would be used to improve the weaponization program and Iran’s missile capabilities.

In contrast, the US-based United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) advocates tightening the economic and diplomatic pressures on Iran to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state. This entails increasing sanctions against both individuals and corporate entities trading with Iran or buying its oil. This would be a return to the maximal pressure under Trump which has already proven to be a failure. Yet Nikki Haley, who is on the UANI board, is a prominent advocate for such a policy direction.

Interim steps pose great risks for the West as Iran has enriched enough uranium to be within reach of becoming a nuclear power. It is already a transitional nuclear power. Further, unless the situation is stabilized and possibly reversed, one can expect increasing demands by Iran and increased momentum thrusting Iran into an all-out quest for nuclear weapons and militarization while Israel is compelled to retaliate through covert actions and possibly a direct attack. The risk is a tit-for-tat confrontation. The timeline for reaching even an interim deal becomes more difficult as the days progress and almost impossible the day Iran succeeds in becoming a full transitional nuclear power.

The problems on Iran’s part include the increased improvement and application of its centrifuges to refine more uranium even more quickly, the blockages to IAEA inspectors, the disarming of automatic methods of observation and the open production of more and purer forms of uranium in total breach of the JCPOA limits. Iran is, according to many estimates, already a threshold nuclear power capable of producing one bomb in 1-3 weeks, a second bomb within two months and a third before four months. The only core limitation is that its weaponization capacity is still severely limited – that is, the ability actually to build the bomb, install the optical equipment needed, trigger the chain reaction and place it on a missile warhead. These bombs could not be delivered to targets during the next two years but perhaps only a year-and-a-half. That timeline too is rapidly decreasing according to some experts.

Can the situation be stabilized instead of escalating? Is it helped by fruitless negotiations? Tehran has made it very clear that it has no intention of simply returning to the JCPOA. Iran will not accept any deal – neither a return to the original agreement nor even a limited agreement with fewer conditions – unless the United States first lifts all sanctions. Is Iran just posturing? The huge gap in positions makes the chance of a compromise remote. There are many mechanisms available that, in normal times, could assuage Iran, foster reciprocity and reinforce mutuality. However, it is a very uphill battle. Hope is no substitute for reality, especially when American economic incentives lack any balancing threat for non-progress in talks and Israel lacks a persuasive military strategy. Israel does have Jericho missiles that can hit Iran. But can their warheads penetrate Iran’s reinforced nuclear facilities? The failure of IAEA chief, Rafael Grossi, to make any progress in his recent talks with Iran, even with respect to replacing damaged cameras, is an indicator that pressure points on Iran are shrinking every day.


Iran and the Nuclear Option

[I am resuming my blog, but intermittently rather than daily.]

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog departed London after his state visit. He came on a high-level mission to the U.K. to strengthen Israel-UK ties, reinforce the image of Israel’s commitment to tackling climate change, honour Jewish Olympians murdered in the Munich Olympic Games as well as a Holocaust survivor, Sir Ben Helfgott, who became a world weightlifting champion. But his most important reason was to send a clear and unequivocal message. Herzog declared, “I shall make clear that Israel cannot allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons capability and it expects its allies to be tough and assertive toward the Iranians, including in their dialogue with them. Israel makes this position clear to all its friends and, of course, makes clear that it reserves all options to defend itself.” Finally, he claimed that Iran was simply stalling and had no intention of reigning in its nuclear program. Iran is simply playing for time. Dalia Dassa Kaye, a senior fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Studies, concurred in the view that the new Iranian government was more hardline than the old one. Iran was simply wasting time as it sought a shorter time gap for a breakthrough to becoming a nuclear power.

This past Sunday, the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and Haaretz jointly sponsored a conference on Israeli national security. The conference with a star line-up of academic and political speakers focused largely on the nuclear threat of Iran to Israel. What was surprising to me is that, as I periodically glanced at the numbers watching, the peak audience was 270. When Senator Ben Menendez, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, spoke at the end, there were only 27 tuned in. Shocking! For such a high level and politically and militarily critical conference that was well publicized? Fortunately, it is available on the websites of both Haaretz and the UCLA Center for Israeli studies.

My impression was that the politicians and speakers shared an overwhelming consensus about Iran and its nuclear program. Benny Gantz, Israel’s Defence Minister, in his opening remarks, zeroed in on Iran’s quest to become a regional hegemon. But Iran presented a global as well as regional threat. However, the nuclear threat provided the umbrella for its conventional disruptive activities on the ground, whether with respect to maritime shipping, the democratic process in Iraq or the effort to make the regimes in Syria and Lebanon satraps of Iran. In addition to Assad and Hezbollah, all the satraps are controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Iran’s expeditionary Qods Force, and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS or ‘Etelaat’). The satraps include the Popular Mobilization Units/Shia militias in Iraq, the Ansar Allah/Houthis movement in Yemen, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and, to some extent, Hamas in Gaza. In contrast, and in opposition, Israel seeks to forge alliances rather than develop proxies in the Middle East.

However, the nuclear threat posed the most significant existential threat to Israel. In contrast, for the U.S., Iran was a threat to international peace but not an existential one. Only Israel had been singled out by Iran for elimination. The U.S. could afford to allow Iran to become an almost-nuclear power. Israel could not. Thus, Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, reiterated America’s longstanding insistence that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons while Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid warned against Iran being allowed to become a nuclear threshold country. The difficulties focused on forging a united front that would be both effective as well as furthering both the security interests of Israel and the peace policies of the U.S. in the Gulf. There was a shadow of darkness between the Israeli policy committed to Iran never becoming a power capable of producing a nuclear bomb within a short time frame and the American determination that Iran never become an actual nuclear power. A goal of “no daylight between the U.S. and Israel is a chimera. Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, emphasized this difference but insisted that the Bennett government would strenuously avoid a public confrontation with the Biden government even though Israel could not tolerate Iran even becoming a potential nuclear power.

The facts are ominous. Iran has now acquired nuclear material purified to 60%, well beyond the 3.67% permitted under JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action negotiated by the Obama regime. Further, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has accumulated 17.7 kg (39 pounds) of the material enriched to 60% fissile purity and eighty-four times the limit set under the JCPOA. When the isotope U-235 is enriched to 90% (now needing only a short time), with more efficient bombs, Iran will have sufficient to make almost 2 bombs and more than double the amount it had only three months previously. (“Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima contained 64 kg of highly enriched uranium.)

Further, Iran already has a stockpile of over 210 KG of 20% enriched uranium. More ominous, Iran is now using its advanced much faster centrifuges to purify instead of the older models. In addition, Iran is now building centrifuges capable of operating at six times the speed of even its existing new array of advanced centrifuges. Iran will soon be able to make a breakthrough to nuclear weapons in a matter of weeks rather than a year. Iran continues to deny IAEA inspectors access to its centrifuge workshop and the TESA Karaj workshop which manufactures parts for the centrifuges and nuclear enrichment machines.

The IAEA has had no access to Iranian nuclear sites or enrichment processes since February according to the agency’s chief, Rafael Mariano Grossi. Yossi Cohen, former head of Mossad, stressed that Israel could not afford to allow Iran to become a power with the capacity to make nuclear weapons let alone just prevent Iran from actually acquiring such weapons. The core issue was nuclear capability not just a nuclear breakthrough. Cohen insisted that Israel was still capable of crippling Iran’s nuclear program by military means. Israel recently launched its public relations campaign to emphasize that the military option is on the table, that it is developing military scenarios, making contingency plans and providing a budget. Is this smoke and mirrors or the promise of real action?

But how could such an Iranian capability be eliminated once the knowledge and technology are mastered? Only if its high-speed centrifuges are destroyed. Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons had to be eliminated, preferably through diplomacy but, if necessary, by the use of military force according to these specialists.  If negotiations provide the route, the sunset clauses of the JCPOA have to be greatly extended.  In its current form, the JCPOA was a sanctions relief deal not an agreement to end Iran’s capability of producing nuclear weapons. Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri-Kani of Iran heading the Iranian negotiating team in fact insisted that the imminent resumption of talks would not be about the nuclear issue but about the lifting of sanctions.

The original Mark Kirk (Rep.) and Robert Menendez (Dem.) amendment to the 2011 annual defence budget imposing sanctions on the economic lifeline of Iran received unanimous Senate support and was the catalyst for the 2015 agreement. But the JCPOA is just an agreement that allows subsequent presidents to change course and even abrogate the deal; it is not a treaty requiring two-thirds support in the Senate. And it is almost certain that Iran would not be able to secure a treaty that would prevent a Trump from abrogating the agreement.

In addition, the weaponization and militarization of its program also had to end as well. Iran has developed intercontinental ballistic missiles that can hit central Europe and eventually North America. The evidence suggests that Iran did not even want to go back to the flawed JCPOA even as Sima Shine, the head of the Iran program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, stressed Israel’s great fear that this would be the outcome of renewed negotiations. Iran is demanding not only the removal of ALL sanctions, including the sanctions for Iran’s human rights violations and its support of terrorism, but the payment of compensation for the past losses that Iran suffered as a result of those sanctions.  These claims were not just a bluff but an attempt at sneaking towards nuclear weapons with salami slicing tactics. First jump to 5%. Then 20%. Then 60% enrichment. The U.S. may not wish to join Israel in a military attack, but would it provide the logistic and diplomatic clout and legal right to defend Israel’s right to do so?

Doesn’t the position of the new Israeli Bennett government sound remarkably akin to the position of the Netanyahu regime? Yes, but with one major difference. Bibi made a fateful alliance with Trump and made the Democrats his enemy. The Bennett government through a diplomatic offensive is seeking to rebuild joint support across the aisle for its position. Bennett is committed to dialogue and engagement rather than confrontation. The Israeli intelligence and military establishment, in contrast to Netanyahu generally, agreed with Likud former defence minister, Moshe Yalon, that, “The Iran deal was a mistake; withdrawing from it was even worse” [my own position in retrospect]. The Israelis do not support a renewed JCPOA. They want a preventive program. They want to ensure that Iran no longer has the capacity to acquire nuclear weapons even as the political climate in the U.S. in the Democratic Party has shifted further away from support for Israel, particularly in the views of young people even within the Jewish community. But it is a shift of a minority within the Democratic Party. However, the shift is also taking place among young evangelicals as well according to Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland.

The black cloud that hangs over closer cooperation on Iranian policy between Israel and the U.S. is the lack of progress towards a two-state solution and the successive failures of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Micah Goodman may advise shrinking the conflict, but the number of voices advocating alternative solutions, such as the one-state proposal of people like Peter Beinart or the confederation push of Ameer Fakhoury, director of the research center at Neve Shalom (Wahat al Salam), has increased.

At the same time, Iran has been attempting to paper over its differences with the Saudis and the other Gulf states, particularly over Yemen. It has already forged an agreement with the UAE that led to that country’s withdrawal from Yemen in return for immunity from Houthi attacks on its ports and shipping. But political movements in the Middle East have also undermined the Iranian position. In Lebanon, Hezbollah now confronts resistance in the streets. Hamas is openly negotiating for improved relations between Israel and Gaza. In the recent elections in Iraq, Iran’s influence considerably diminished.

On the other hand, Iran has significantly improved its connections with China and China has become increasingly dependent on Iranian oil as it flouts the sanctions openly. Last month, half of Iran’s exported 1.1 million barrels per day of crude oil went to China. After the UAE, China has become Iran’s largest trading partner. China entered into an economic agreement with Iran to invest over $400 billion over 25 years. Further, as the U.S. continues to pivot to the Far East and disengage increasingly from the Middle East through military withdrawals and drawdowns, its leverage on Iran has diminished as well as any impression that the U.S. is willing to resort to military force to advance its position in that area of the world.

Iran also feels that North Korea has provided a lesson on how to resist America as it slices its way forward with its nuclear program.  After all, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya under pressure both gave up their nuclear program. They are both dead. In contrast Kim Jung-un remains alive and seemingly untouchable.

Take Biden’s resolve to prevent the militarization of Iran’s nuclear program and the reluctance of the American regime to threaten the use of military force let alone use it is consistent with his failure to enforce many of the economic sanctions on the books.  The regime of “maximal sanctions” is over. Further, unlike Obama, Biden no longer insists that “all options” are on the table. Further, Biden’s freedom to act is far more limited than Trump’s. However, Trump’s Iranian strategy, developed as a result of pressure from Netanyahu, had been an abject failure. If Obama withdrew from Iraq in 2011 and failed to live up to its “red lines” with respect to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in August 2013, Trump twice announced withdrawals from Syria, failed to take any action when Iran openly advanced its nuclear program and ignored the terms of the JCPOA, and failed to do anything when Iran attacked the Abqaiq and Khurais Saudi oil-processing facilities on 14 September 2019. In the 12 May 2019 Fujayrah Iranian attack on an Emirati registered vessel, two Saudi registered oil tankers and a Norwegian registered oil tanker, the U.S., as the maritime police of the Gulf region, failed to respond. Trump was only willing to support a maximum economic sanctions program but without the backing of a credible military threat. However, he did order the assassination of Qasem Suleimani.

The U.S. Navy jointly with six other countries in the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) through its operational arm, the Coalition Task Force (CTF) Sentinel, and the larger Combined Maritime Forces, is charged with ensuring freedom of navigation in U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility where the Iranians have been involved in tanker hijackings. In June, Iran seized the tanker Winsome and the Oman Pride in Sohar. Last July (2020), Iran seized the tanker Gulf Sky in Emirati waters. However, in August, the U.S. Navy responded and seized more than 1 million barrels of Iranian gasoline bound for Venezuela aboard four tankers. Iran responded in turn by attempting to seize other tankers.

Iran may not actually become a nuclear power. However, it may be sufficient to develop the capacity to be a nuclear power within a short timeframe.

In the meanwhile, Iran has tremendously advanced its conventional military capabilities. Its anti-aircraft defences have greatly improved, and its nuclear production facilities have become even more protected from an aerial attack as they have been buried even deeper. Its maritime military capabilities have certainly advanced. At the same time, it is not clear that any military action could significantly set back its nuclear program. Certainly, many U.S. strategic military experts have warned Israel that any military assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be counterproductive leading Iran to speed up its nuclear program even more.

There is one additional significant change. Though not yet a major player compared to Israel, Iran has developed its cyber military capabilities compared to when the Stuxnet Worm attack seriously set back Iran’s facilities twelve years ago. However, Israel has also advanced enormously, not only on the cyber front – note the cyberattack on Iran’s Mahan Air on 21 November. Mahan Air has been a target of the West ever since the U.S. blacklisted the airline in 2011 for allegedly “providing financial, material and technological support” to the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force and ferrying weapons and personnel to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Although the air carrier claimed that it had “thwarted” the attack and that its flight schedule was not affected, messages sent by hackers to its passengers told a different story.  

Cyberattacks on Iran have become more frequent. In October, its gas stations were struck resulting in drivers joining long lineups for hours to get gas for their cars. Trains have been delayed and even cancelled as a result of cyber attacks. As an Iran openly committed to supporting terror in the region and the destruction of Israel approaches the nuclear threshold, the threat of Israel using military force may just be a mask to hide its enormous increase in capacity to employ cyber warfare.  At the same time, Iran’s ability to defend its nuclear program against cyber attacks has also greatly improved. Officials in the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command have insisted that Tehran’s improved defences against cyberattacks means that Israel would not be able to cripple Iran’s centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear site as it did a decade ago. Iran is now employing its advanced centrifuges at Fordow in open defiance of the JCPOA. However, when military action, however limited, is fronted by cyber warfare and sabotage, perhaps the Israeli threat could be credible.

Thus, as Iran resumes its negotiations with the West on 29 November, pessimism clouds the discussions. Coercive diplomacy does not seem to be part of the negotiations. Iran continues its efforts to widen the gap between the American policy of preventing Iran from acquiring a bomb and the Israeli policy of eliminating Iran’s capability of making a bomb. The latter goal seems like pie-in-the-sky to many American Iranian specialists. They seem willing to ease economic sanctions and simply freeze Iran’s nuclear program in place. On the other hand, some hope for a partial agreement, limited in both time and scope to get around the deadlock. Others call for a longer and stronger JCPOA. In that case, the Raisi government is likely to head for the exit and continue its efforts to obscure its clandestine nuclear program and prevent any meaningful inspections. The prospects for successful talks are very dim indeed. If so, the prospect of a military attack by Israel increases and cyber attacks will certainly escalate.