Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a sermon in Tehran. File/Reuters
Eli Lake, Tribune News Service
Since taking office, President Joe Biden and his top advisers have made it clear that there is almost nothing Iran can do to get his administration to rescind its offer to negotiate a return to the 2015 nuclear deal that Biden’s predecessor abandoned. Thankfully, that might finally be changing. On Wednesday Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei trashed his government’s past nuclear negotiations in front of the outgoing and incoming presidents. He told the new president he should learn from his predecessor’s experience not to trust the West.
In a statement responding to those remarks, the State Department repeated that it was sincere in seeking a negotiated settlement to return to the deal — which would limit Iran’s nuclear enrichment for another nine years and remove the most biting secondary sanctions on Iran’s economy. That has been boilerplate for the Biden administration since January. This time though, it added a veiled threat: “That opportunity will not last forever.”
It may well be that the change is motivated by a flawed understanding of Iranian politics. As Axios reported this week, the Biden administration is worried that Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, a fanatic jurist responsible for sentencing thousands of political prisoners to the gallows in 1988, will take a hard line in nuclear talks. The outgoing administration of President Hassan Rouhani negotiated the nuclear deal in 2015. But there has never been a hard-line/moderate dichotomy. Khamenei has the real power in Iran, and he approved the deal, just as he now appears to be souring on the prospect of returning to it. Raisi was elevated to head the Justice Ministry in 2019, remember, as part of Rouhani’s allegedly moderate government.
A better rationale for not returning to the Iran talks are the growing signs that Khamenei’s regime is wobbly. It is failing to meet the basic needs of its people. Earlier this month, protests broke out in Khuzestan province over the failure to provide drinking water. This week, demonstrations spread to Tehran. Some videos of those protests showed Iranians calling for Khamenei to resign, just as the protests in 2018 and 2019 called for his ouster. Some protesters are angry because Iran’s electricity grid can’t keep the power on. This round of demonstrations began because of water shortages. But in the last four years, other state failures have brought Iranians out to the street. In 2017 and 2018 it was failed banks, which wiped out the savings of average Iranians, that prompted national protests. In 2019, it was the fact that state security services shot unarmed demonstrators. In 2009, it was a stolen election.
It’s tempting to posit that US sanctions are what’s keeping Iran’s regime from providing basic services to its people. But this is too simplistic. The banking crisis of 2017 and 2018 occurred while Iran was enjoying the benefits of the 2015 nuclear deal. Sanctions didn’t force the state security services to shoot peaceful protesters, nor did they force developers in Khuzestan to divert drinking water from the population to drill for more oil. These were the choices of a corrupt and cruel regime.
So Biden now has an opportunity. He should follow up on the State Department statement this week supporting Iranian protesters and offer US technical support to help activists get around the country’s Internet blackout and slowdown. He should rally European governments to join in his solidarity campaign for the Iranian people. He should consider creating a modest fund for the families of Iranian workers going on strike. He should build on the last administration’s work to reach out to Iranians on social media.
The overriding goal of all this outreach, and the main objective of the president’s Iran policy, should be to support the efforts of Iran’s people to achieve a democratic transition. The alternative to this approach is to patiently cajole an ailing supreme leader to limit his nuclear program while his ailing country collapses around him.
Ahead of last Friday’s launch of the fourth round of talks on reviving the nuclear deal with Iran, an unidentified senior US state department official predicted that the return by the US and Iran to the accord is “doable” before Iran’s presidential election in June.
US presidential candidate Joe Biden promised to return to the 2015 agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions. Instead, President Biden sticks to the dangerous and destructive policy dictated by Donald Trump who withdrew from the deal in 2018 and slapped 1,500 punitive sanctions on Iran.
Biden hesitates although 54 per cent of registered US voters support a deal while only 20 per cent oppose; among Biden’s Democrats the number is 70 per cent backers and six per cent opponents; among independents 50 per cent support and 30 per cent do not; and 41 per cent of Republicans are in favour against 35 who are not.
Since Biden’s own positive rating is currently a low 41 per cent against 56 per cent negative rating, it would seem it would behove him to re-enter the deal. The main obstacle is Tehran’s insistence that the US must lift Trump’s designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRG) as a “foreign terrorist organisation,” making the IRG the world’s sole national army to join a host of armed non-state actors.
The text, a somewhat amended version of the original document, has been ready for months and awaits finalisation. Why then is Biden procrastinating and prevaricating? He faces stiff opposition from domestic anti-Iran lobbyists and legislators and Israel where the government rejects the deal. In both countries military and intelligence experts are, however, in favour. They hold, correctly, that Tehran has made great strides in developing both nuclear expertise and output since Trump pulled out, prompting Iran to gradually reduce its adherence in retaliation.
Instead of being limited to 3.67 uranium enrichment Iran has 43 kilograms of 60 per cent enriched uranium: this is a few steps away from the 90 per cent needed for a bomb. Instead of having a 300 kilogram stockpile of 3.67 enriched uranium, Iran has a stock 18 times larger of uranium enriched above the 3.67 per cent level permitted. Instead of carrying out enrichment with old, approved centrifuges, Iran has employed advanced centrifuges.
Instead of abiding by the stringent monitoring regime put in place by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has been slipping surveillance. Until Iran began to breach the regulatory regime, it was the toughest on earth.
Nevertheless, Iran has pledged to revert to the deal once the US re-enters and to halt enrichment above 3.67 per cent, export all but 300 kilogrammes of the permitted 3.67 per cent of material in its stockpile, revert to old centrifuges which have been warehoused, and re-engage fully with the IAEA monitoring effort.
Opponents of the deal argue its “sunset clauses” will expire by 2031, thereby ending restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities. This may be addressed in the new deal.
However, they also contend it fails to curb in Iran’s ballistic missile programme and sup- port for Lebanon’s Hizbollah, Yemeni Houthi rebels, Iraqi Shia militias and the Syrian government.
Since these issues are outside the purview of the 2015 deal, Iran rightly rejects including them in its successor. Tehran has also made it clear that they can be discussed directly with the US once Biden re-joins the deal and sanctions are lifted.
After months of trying to get the external issues incorporated into the nuclear deal, the Biden administration conceded that this is impossible.
On April 29th this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign had failed and “produced a more dangerous nuclear programme” while Iran stepped up involvement in regional affairs. These post-Ukraine war remarks suggested that the Biden administration was ready to return to the deal.
However, the administration continues to blow hot at one moment and cold another. Last week Washington may have blown up the deal. At the 35-member IAEA board of governors meeting in Vienna the US — along with acolytes Britain, France, and Germany — secured the adoption of a resolution critical of Iran over its inability or refusal to account for traces of nuclear material at three undeclared sites found by IAEA monitors in 2019 and 2020.
The resolution, which received 30 votes in favour — with Iran and Russia voting against and India, China and Libya abstaining — urges Iran to co-operate “without delay” with inspectors after IAEA director Rafael Grossi reported he had not received a “technically credible” explanation for the presence of particles.
Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi pointed out that uranium “contamination” was possible “in a country as vast as Iran.” He also suggested “human sabotage” by Israel which is blamed for repeated attacks on Iranian nuclear sites and assassinations of Iranian scientists.
Iranian officials are suspicious due to the fact that former Israeli Prime Minister Bin- yamin Netanyahu instigated visits by IAEA inspectors to one of the three contaminate sites at the village of Turquzabad near Tehran. IAEA monitors took soil samples and concluded that there were “traces of radioactive material” at the location which may have been used for storage as there were no signs of processing. How did Netanyahu know there were samples at this site?
Although the IAEA still has more than 40 cameras which will continue to operate at Iran’s enrichment facilities, Grossi stated Tehran’s action mounted to a “serious challenge.” He warned that in three or four weeks the agency would be unable to provide “continuity of knowledge” about Iran’s activities. “This could be a fatal blow” to negotiations over the nuclear deal, he stated.
He also warned that Iran is “just a few weeks” away from having enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb. However, Iran halted work on weaponisation in 2003 and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly stated that Iran will not manufacture nuclear weapons as they are prohibited by Islam.
Kelsey Davenport of the “independent” Washington-based Arms Control Association told the BBC that in ten days or less Iran could transform its current stock of 60 per cent enriched uranium into the 90 per cent required for weapons. She said, however, that manufacturing bombs would require one or two years.
If Biden continues dithering the deal could die, further destabilising an already unstable region.
Michael Jansen, Political Correspondent
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