Mon. Jan 30th, 2023

•Time is running out to avert a new crisis in the Middle East


IN A WORLD of increasing geopolitical rivalry—over Ukraine, Taiwan and more—the big powers have at least managed to co-operate in the diplomatic effort to contain Iran’s nuclear programme. After eight rounds of negotiations in Vienna, might they succeed in reviving the nuclear deal agreed on by Barack Obama in 2015 and abandoned by Donald Trump three years later?

The next round, set to begin this week, looks decisive. Negotiators have never been closer to a breakthrough, yet have also never been closer to a breakdown, says one source. American officials have been notably upbeat about the prospect of an agreement. In an apparent gesture of goodwill, America last week said Russian, Chinese and European companies could again receive waivers from US sanctions to engage in some civilian nuclear activities in Iran.

The dangers of a breakdown are also apparent. American hawks have grown louder in their opposition. Iran’s allies in Yemen, the Houthis, have intensified missile and drone attacks against the United Arab Emirates. That has prompted, in turn, the deployment of an American warship and of advanced fighter jets, not just to help protect the country but to send an implicit warning to Iran. Israel has been rehearsing military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Its security co-operation with Gulf states is increasing.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal is known, strictly limited Iran’s nuclear programme and strengthened inspections in return for a lifting of many sanctions. But it was denounced by Israel and even some Democrats. It allowed Iran to resume large-scale uranium enrichment after 15 years. It did not oblige Iran to end its ballistic-missile programme or its involvement in regional conflicts. Mr Trump, calling the JCPOA “the worst deal ever”, imposed a multitude of sanctions under a policy of “maximum pressure”.

In response, Iran progressively accelerated its enrichment of uranium—the fissile material required for both nuclear reactors and bombs. It has spun some uranium to 60% enrichment, a hair’s breadth away from bomb-grade stuff. It has also converted enriched uranium hexafluoride gas into uranium metal—for which the most likely use is in bombs—and hampered inspections by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Rafael Grossi, the agency’s director-general, notes that Iran is the only country without nuclear weapons to enrich uranium to such a high degree. “What you have here is an Iran that has grown in width, in depth, in height, in all, in all dimensions, in its nuclear programme,” he says.

Iran’s “breakout time”—the time it would need to make a bomb’s-worth of fissile material—has shrunk to less than a month, much shorter than the year or more when the JCPOA was in force. (Putting a nuclear warhead on a missile would take perhaps another year or two.)

Hence America’s insistence that the talks are entering the “endgame”: unless a deal is concluded soon it will lose its value. The longer the talks drag on, the sooner the restrictions on Iran’s programme will expire under the JCPOA’s “sunset clauses”. And by now a return to the deal would no longer restore the full year’s breakout time, admits Rob Malley, America’s chief negotiator.

For the Iranians, too, the JCPOA is losing value. Any lifting of American sanctions is liable to be temporary, given that Joe Biden may well be out of office in 2025. Mr Trump might be back in the White House; in any case, any Republican president will be under strong pressure to abandon the deal. American negotiators have rejected Iranian demands for a “guarantee” that sanctions will not be re-imposed. Mr Biden cannot bind his successor, they say; the best he can offer is a promise to abide by the JCPOA if Iran remains in compliance.

Will such limited reassurance be enough? Optimists see a 75% chance of a deal, noting the shift in America’s positions. It would give the Iranian economy a needed boost at the start of Ebrahim Raisi’s presidency. Pessimists see a high likelihood of failure, reckoning that Iran wants to press its advantage, convinced that America does not want to go to war. The risk of misunderstanding is high, given that Iran refuses to talk directly to America (instead, it negotiates indirectly through European, Chinese and Russian diplomats).

Mr Biden says he will not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, but Israel is not reassured. It says Iran should not have the “capability” to acquire a nuke (but does not define this). Having promised a deal that would be “longer and stronger” than the JCPOA, the Biden administration will at best get one that is shorter and weaker. The blame for that lies in Mr Trump’s “catastrophic” withdrawal from the JCPOA, says the administration. It hopes that, once the JCPOA restores some stability, follow-on negotiations might improve its terms.

Western officials are also preparing for a breakdown. They are quietly discussing the next steps in raising economic and political pressure on Iran. One option would be for a European country—probably Britain—to invoke the “snapback” provisions of the JCPOA to reimpose UN sanctions. These would have limited impact and risk a breach between the West and Russia and China, whose acquiescence would help increase the impact of any effort to impose more economic pain on Iran.

Thus far Russia and China have helped nudge Iran towards a deal. In December, for instance, they pushed it to return to its limited co-operation with the IAEA to avoid bringing the matter before the UN Security Council. Their ties with Iran are complex. Russia provides it with weapons and civil nuclear technology. China is the biggest buyer of its oil. Both seem keen on using Iran as a counterweight against American influence. But neither wants Iran to go nuclear. Nor do they seem to want a new crisis in the Gulf that will add to geopolitical instability.

The gathering storm in Ukraine may affect such calculations. Some diplomats hope the Ukraine crisis will in fact hasten an agreement, as the big powers seek to contain their rivalry. Others fear that positions are already hardening. Russia and China last week issued a joint declaration denouncing America and its allies who “fuel antagonism and confrontation” around the world. Iran could become another element of rivalry. If so, a new crisis in the Middle East will be added to that in Europe and the looming one in Asia.

Credit | The Economist

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