Following the conclusion of the first round of indirect nuclear talks between Iran and the United States in Vienna last week, US and European have been warning that negotiations will be “heading for collapse” unless Tehran changes its conditions for reviving the 2015 nuclear deal.
Negotiations between representatives of the so called hardline Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi, and parties to the 2015 agreement – the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany – will be resumed at the end of this week, but there are no real hopes of an immediate breakthrough. The US representative will continue to sit in a separate room, as Washington is no longer officially part to the agreement, and other diplomats will convey the proposals between the two sides.
However, the gloomy assessment by US and European officials, matched with hardline Iranian statements on the need for a binding agreement that no upcoming US president can tear apart as easily as former US president Donald Trump did in 2018, as well as Iran’s insistence on its right to enrich uranium at high levels, need not mean a complete failure of talks.
Both the Biden administration and the Iranian government need to renew their commitment to the 2015 agreement, not just to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, but also to settle several volatile regional conflicts that went viral in the Middle East over the past 10 years. Conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere practically became bargaining chips which both Iran and the United States and its allies have used in their long-standing confrontation over Tehran’s nuclear programme and its regional influence.
Amid signs that the Washington is seeking to reduce its presence in the Middle East in order to refocus its resources on the growing tensions with Russia and China, even close US allies who see Iran as a major threat to their security, namely the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, are clearly seeking to reach an understanding and mend fences with Tehran. The rare visit by UAE National Security Adviser Tahnon Ben Zayed, to Tehran this week and meetings with Iranian President Raisi and other top officials has not gone unnoticed. Ben Zayed extended an invitation to Raisi to pay Abu Dhabi a visit which, if it takes place, will be the first to the UAE by an Iranian president in 14 years. The Saudi foreign minister has also confirmed that at least four top-level meetings took place with Iranian officials in order to improve ties between the two major regional powers in the oil-rich Gulf region.
Israel, however, remains the only regional player that continues to push for an escalation in the confrontation between the United States and Iran, demanding nearly impossible guarantees that Tehran will not be able to develop military nuclear capabilities. That remains to be a major irony, considering how to this day Israel refuses to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and its advanced nuclear arsenal being ignored by the United States and its European partners even as they remain adamant that Iran should not to develop nuclear weapons.
However, Israel’s Prime Minister Neftali Bennet, will hopefully prove cleverer than his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. The former, longest serving Israeli prime minister not only allowed Iran to develop higher levels of nuclear technology by pushing Trump to pull out from the 2015 deal, but also caused an unprecedented rift with US Democrats when he publicly sought to embarrass former US president Barack Obama and directly addressed Congress in order to stall the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.
Israeli officials are likely to continue both open and underhanded confrontations with Iran, whether through secret cyber wars that wreck havoc on vital Iranian infrastructure facilities, the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, the bombing of Iranian troops in Syria or otherwise puzzling explosions in Iranian nuclear facilities. But Tel Aviv is intelligent enough to recognise that there is no chance for a unilateral Israeli military action against Iran, considering that so many regional and international interests are at stake. Without any need for insane nuclear weapons or doomsday scenarios, Israel is simply surrounded by pro-Iranian parties and militias that will happily rain its cities with missiles from all directions.
Meanwhile, top Iranian officials are also clearly aware that they are not immune to pressure. The deteriorating Iranian economy, due to tough sanctions over decades, have led to several popular revolts in which the average Iranian openly expressed their opposition to the supreme Iranian spiritual leader, and declared their rejection of ongoing Iranian adventures which are a main reason for instability in several Middle East countries. Iranians chanted that they wanted their money to meet their own needs, instead of those of political groups in neighbouring countries such as Iraq, or even further in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Iran has also been a clear threat to stability in Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries by interfering in their internal affairs on the pretext of defending Shiite minorities. Overall, the sectarian rhetoric coming out of Tehran, along with claims of restoring Persian glory in the region, have only deepened mistrust between Iran and its neighbours.
No one entertains any illusions about an easy agreement to settle all regional and international fears surrounding Iran. However, the ongoing talks in Vienna, and the chance of reaching a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme might be signs of a start.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.