The negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme are in disorder. Representatives of Iran, the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, and Germany are engaged in busy diplomacy, attempting to resurrect a deal to restrain Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.
The discussions, however, are frequently halted or suspended by stunts and pretend slights.
Under former US president Donald Trump, the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, delivering a hefty blow to the future of the accord.
Officials in the current American administration, including the presidential special representative to Iran, Rob Malley, and Brett McGurk, Middle East coordinator of the national security council, are reportedly gloomy about the possibility of reaching an agreement.
While the deal was suspended, Iran has continued to develop its ballistic missile programme – which has seen extensive use by Iranian proxies against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – and to refine nuclear material.
American senators, like Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, called last month for the end of unfruitful negotiations and the development of a ‘Plan B’ designed to arrest Iran’s rapid development of a nuclear weapon, which Menendez believes to be imminent.
The United States and its European co-negotiators are in a difficult position. One of the parties to the negotiations is Russia, which is an international pariah as a result of its invasion of Ukraine.
Russia is also a longstanding strategic complement to Iranian regional expansion in the Middle East, with both countries backing the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and the constellation of Iranian militias and proxies active in Syria, Iran, and Lebanon, which are participants in Syria’s war.
Russia’s own diplomatic isolation does not incentivise it to cooperate in Vienna.
Similarly, the broadly strong position Iran now enjoys in the Middle East – with active and successful proxy forces in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen – allows Iran to secure concessions from strategic rivals including Saudi Arabia. It does not engender fear of the consequences of alienating the United States or Europe.
In a gesture of non-compliance, Iran last month indicated it will remove 27 cameras within its nuclear facilities maintained by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitors Tehran’s compliance with the terms of the deal.
Some downplay the significance of this gesture, however.
“To begin, Iran was not required to put many of these cameras to work – they were done so voluntarily to assure JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the original 2015 nuclear deal] signatories and the IAEA of goodwill, a gesture that has continued even after US withdrawal from the nuclear accords in May 2018,” Masoud Mostajabi, associate director of Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, told The New Arab.
However, there are other challenges to monitoring posed by Iranian actions.
“This action, to turn cameras off, was in response to the IAEA Board of Governors resolution condemning Iran of ‘insufficient cooperation’ and transparency at its nuclear facilities – importantly, Iran has also shut off the ‘online enrichment monitor’ that monitors uranium enrichment,” Mostajabi said.
“Rafeal Grossi has had to fly to Tehran on a monthly basis to review the camera footage and ask for an extension – thus, this was the next natural step for Iran to take in removing voluntary cameras – cameras that it does indeed have to keep (Grossi estimated 40) as a [Non-Proliferation Treaty] signatory and under the JCPOA, it continues to abide by,” he added.
“Therefore, this is another step Iran has taken to gain leverage, meanwhile leaving the door open for a re-entry into the JCPOA.”
Without a clear measure of enrichment, any guesses as to how much material for use in weaponry Iran has are reduced in accuracy, and judgements of how to proceed are hamstrung.
Senator Menendez’s Plan B is not defined, but it likely bears some resemblance to Israeli efforts to undermine Iran’s nuclear programme.
In recent years, Israel has mounted a campaign of sabotage, assassination, and subversion intended to kill nuclear scientists and Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard leaders associated with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and to destroy facilities and technology used for nuclear research.
This campaign has recently widened and intensified.
Many analysts have taken this to indicate increased Israeli fear of an Iranian nuclear weapon in the near future. It is a threat that, for generations of Israeli political leaders, has felt existential. A nuclear-armed Iran, Israel has long believed, is likely to use those weapons promptly to attempt to destroy it.
Israel’s position, therefore, is as it has historically been; that a functioning Iranian nuclear weapons system cannot be allowed to exist and must be undermined and, if necessary, destroyed by force if it appears likely to develop a nuclear weapon capable of attacking Israel.
Privately, American officials indicate their own willingness to destroy with military force any Iranian nuclear programme that gets too far advanced to be stopped by other means. Often, this seems like hollow boasting.
Other analysts have indicated that Iran’s nuclear programme is well-hidden and dispersed, largely immune from anything other than an overwhelming attack from either Israel or the United States – a truly extreme measure, unlikely to be contemplated, let alone put into action.
Menendez’s calendar is not universally shared.
“On estimating Iran’s ‘breakout time’, there is little exact science. However, based on the IAEA’s latest quarterly reports, experts have generally put Iran’s ability for nuclear weaponisation at roughly two years or more. Thus, as things stand, claiming Iran does or will soon possess a nuclear warhead, is at a minimum an exaggeration or an outright fabrication,” said Mostajabi.
Nonetheless, there are other perspectives. David Albright and Sarah Burkhard of the Institute for Science and International Security estimated at the beginning of June that, if Iran wanted to enrich its uranium to weaponised levels, “it could do so within a few weeks with only a few of its advanced centrifuge cascades,” and that “Whether or not Iran enriches its highly-enriched uranium up to 90 percent, it can have enough HEU for two nuclear weapons within one month after starting breakout,” leading to the conclusion that Iran’s breakout time is “zero”.
They advocate the most stringent pressure, akin to that applied to Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, to prevent Iran from achieving full nuclearisation.
The current American administration is composed of those who negotiated and held office during the previous nuclear deal.
These officials are largely considered conciliatory and willing to vouchsafe Iranian proxy campaigns across the Middle East, and to provide sanctions relief and the unfreezing of cash, in order to buy Iranian acquiescence.
If a US administration like this, with intentions that are highly favourable to a deal, is gloomy about the prospect of one, things cannot be going well in Vienna.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.