A Long Way to Vienna

iran nuclear
This photo released last month by the Iranian Army shows a missile being fired during a military drill at an undisclosed location. (Iranian Army via AP)

When President Joseph Biden won his bid for the White House, many assumed that America’s and Iran’s recommitment to the nuclear deal sealed in 2015 was only a matter of time. The President had campaigned on return to the agreement (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) and Iran was reportedly suffering significant economic hardships as a result of the maximum pressure sanction regime instituted by former President Donald Trump when he abandoned the deal in 2018.

Yet, that does not seem to be the case.

Several rounds of talks last spring in Vienna between Iranian diplomats and European counterparts (acting as go-betweens for the U.S.) failed to produce a road map back to compliance that was acceptable to either side.

In June, shortly before the election of ultra-hardline President Ebrahim Raisi, talks broke off totally and efforts to restart stalled for five months. During that time, Iran made many announcements that it would re-engage imminently, but refused to commit to a date. At the same time, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog released several reports showing Iran advancing rapidly toward producing the material that would be needed for an atomic weapon.

Now, Iran has committed to return to the negotiation table by the end of November, but many questions remain as to what, if anything, they will yield.

Hamodia spoke with Daniel Roth, research director for United Against a Nuclear Iran, which has taken a skeptical view of the JCPOA since its inception.

Iran has been seemingly stalling a return to the negotiating table in Vienna for several months. What motivated their delay?

Firstly, they needed time for the pieces of the new government to fall into place. Ebrahim Raisi, who is now President, is an extreme hard-liner and is a potential successor to the Ayatollah. They’ve been taking their time to develop their own strategy and to determine under what conditions they want to go back to the JCPOA or if they want to go back at all.

My feeling is that the new cabinet is split on that question. None are particularly keen on it, but I presume half of them feel that sanction relief is worth going back to what they committed to in 2015. The other half feels that it’s not worth it.

The other thing that they have used their time to do is to make more advancements with their nuclear program, with the view that getting closer to a weapon will help extract greater concessions from the other JCPOA participants.

iran nuclear
Daniel Roth

Iran seems to be in no rush to return to the JCPOA and you say they are divided over whether they want to at all. Does that reveal that the U.S. sanctions are not as effective of a motivator as their proponents had hoped?

Sanctions generally work as well as authorities are willing to enforce them. At the moment, Iran is to a large extent successfully undermining the sanctions because China is importing millions of barrels of Iranian oil and completely ignoring U.S. sanctions.

Since Iran has few customers, there’s a huge discount on Iranian oil, which China is taking advantage of.

We’ve been doing a lot of research on Chinese imports of Iranian oil and have come to the conclusion that this is the main thing keeping the Iranian regime afloat. All those revenues from Beijing can now be spent on Iran pursuing its illicit nuclear program, drones attacks, and funding all its terrorist proxies around the Middle East.

Without China, U.S. sanctions would be far more efficacious.

Does America have a way to shore up that hole and make it a lot harder for China to be Iran’s oil trade partner?

Under the Trump administration, they did start sanctioning oil entities in China. One of the large Chinese energy companies was sanctioned, but those were more or less lifted by the U.S. now.

There are options for other targets that could be effective. One would be shipping. These tankers are not Iranian vessels, but foreign-flagged ships, so these shipping companies could be sanctioned.

Chinese port authorities could be sanctioned as well as the refineries in China.

Another important target would be Chinese banks who are financing refineries and who provide the money for these transactions with Iran to take place. Banks are making money off these transactions, but they also need access to U.S. markets.

When the Trump administration threatened sanctions after leaving the JCPOA, the Bank of Kunlun, which had been financing most Iranian imports, pulled back and there was a time when China stopped importing so much Iranian oil.

iran nuclear
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

What changed now that, after months of delay, the Iranians have agreed to return to the talks by the end of November?

My guess is that there have been some increasing warnings from the European partners. Germany, the U.K., and France are getting slightly irritated that Iranian breaches have been ongoing while they are all still party to the JCPOA.

If Iran is to have a viable economic future, it does need to have much better trade relations with Europe and is wary of endangering that.

At this point, notwithstanding the fact that those three countries are still in the JCPOA, their trade with Iran is pretty minimal. Potentially, it could be in the billions, but Iran sees that under the present circumstances that is not going to happen.

Iran wants Germany on its side, especially since a lot of its manufacturing and engineering goods come from there. France in particular has called out many of Iran’s recent nuclear violations.

I think that Europeans being more vocal about Iranian transgressions may have played a part in getting them back to negotiations.

There was a common way of thinking that Raisi’s presidency would not mean major change since the Supreme Leader is the one who holds real power. Does the last few months of inaction on talks belie that approach?

It is true that the ultimate arbiter is the Supreme Leader; there’s no disputing that. Still, I think some other things have changed in the intervening five years since Iran signed the JCPOA.

Iran itself may have decided that the concessions under JCPOA simply weren’t worth it. It would prefer to continue having its own indigenous nuclear program within the range of breakout.

I think Iran feels like it’s learned certain things from five years under JCPOA and seen the limitations of the deal from its perspective. We were tracking trade under JCPOA and it was mainly conducted through Memoranda of Understanding rather than full-fledged deals. Trade partners were aware that things could change easily, especially in the U.S. with a new President that had explicitly said he would rip up the deal.

I can imagine the Supreme Leader may have had a change of heart and I think we’ll soon know whether Iran is really serious about returning to the deal.

iran nuclear
Asuspected nuclear enrichment facility under construction inside a mountain located north of Qom, Iran. (AP Photo/DigitalGlobe, File)

What would you conjecture was accomplished in the talks that took place over the summer?

I do not think that much was accomplished. Iran has been very consistent that it is not going to concede anything, that it is only willing to return to the exact parameters of the 2015 JCPOA, and the U.S. must lift all sanctions.

What do you anticipate will happen when talks resume?

I can’t see any bridging of the gap. I don’t think the Iranians are willing to concede anything significant. At most what you will get is something small or symbolic. They might be willing to release some Western prisoners, but nothing regarding the nuclear program itself.

The possibility for a deal happening has more to do with how far the U.S. is willing to concede.

From my point of view, the U.S. looks like they have become weaker on what they are willing to accept. Candidate Joe Biden’s initial formula was to get a “longer and stronger deal.” That was the line and it was repeated by his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.

I actually tracked how many times the phrase was used on the campaign trail and in the first few months of the administration, and the number was in the hundreds. But then it dropped off and you never hear it anymore.

Even so, in terms of whether there will be an actual deal, I don’t see it; partially because there is so much opposition domestically in Congress. I certainly can’t see it happening quickly.

Iran has much to gain by sanction relief and they presumably know that the Biden administration is anxious to return to the JCPOA. As such, why are they having such trouble finding a road back? Does the impasse they have reached show that the President and his team are holding their ground stronger than skeptics assumed they would?

In the last couple of months, it seems that they have held their ground and sent signals that, to use their phrase, “Our patience is not unlimited.” That might have been a factor as well in getting Iran back to the table.

In terms of “longer and stronger,” it doesn’t look like it was ever explained what that would even mean. If I were to design a JCPOA I would have a long wishlist of what would be on it like no sunset, zero enrichment, it has to be a treaty with bipartisan approval, it has to have input for regional allies like Israel, and so on. I don’t expect the Biden team’s idea of new terms were along those lines, but we never heard what they were, and I presume the Iranians didn’t either.

iran nuclear
Missiles in an underground storage facility in an undisclosed location in Iran. (Sepahnews via AP/File)

In terms of the administration’s line that you mentioned that the U.S.’s patience is not unlimited, do you think there is a point at which the Biden team is likely to walk away from the possibility of rejoining the JCPOA?

Iran has continually breached the JCPOA. There might be a line at which all partners agree that the deal has been irreparably broken. That might be if Iran would enrich uranium at 90% or something extreme like that. It could be some new, undeclared nuclear facility that was never discovered. It would have to be something that says very clearly that Iran is rushing towards a nuclear weapon.

Should Iran really cross the line, you would hope the Europeans and even Russia and China would be willing to take action.

As much as China might enjoy seeing Iran rattle America, it is not in their interests either to have a nuclear Iran.

There are several conflicting opinions as to how far off Iran is from producing a nuclear weapon. What is your view and what are the key factors to look at?

Most estimates put their breakout time at about two to three months right now. I don’t think it’s so much their stockpiling of uranium that puts them so close, as much as the experience they’ve gained in working with advanced centrifuges. In 2015 they were working with generation- one centrifuges. At the underground Fordow Enrichment Facility, they now are up to what they’ve labeled IR-6. That is probably the most important factor to look at.

Add to that a stockpile of 25 kilos of 60% enriched uranium; 90% is weapons-grade. The IAEA Inspector General said clearly that only countries that want bombs do that.

Does Iran have delivery systems in place for a nuclear weapon? How far off are they from developing them?

They have the largest stockpile of ballistic missiles in the Middle East and I believe the most technologically advanced program as well in the region, but I am not sure if they could now equip them with a nuclear tip.

iran nuclear
President Joe Biden speaking at the White House earlier this month. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

During the long gap in talks, the Biden administration repeatedly said that if negotiations fail, other options will be considered for dealing with the Iran nuclear threat. What other options do you think the U.S. is seriously considering?

Increasing sanctions and returning to maximum deterrence would be the most important move. Reducing Iran’s oil export to zero would be a high priority as well as other energy exports that they are carrying out. Anything that Iran exports in big amounts contributes to its coffers and should be targeted.

If the administration is serious about other options that would curb Iran’s behavior, it would also have to reestablish a credible military dimension. I don’t see the administration being willing to do that and the Trump administration wasn’t particularly willing either. The one exception was taking out General Soleimani, which put Tehran on notice and, for about six months, the Iranians pulled back on their mischief across the Middle East. That credible deterrent has not been restored.

What strategy do you think the U.S. should be pursuing now toward Iran?

I would advise a return to what the Trump administration called maximum economic pressure. I am sure the Biden administration would want to rebrand it to wash off any tainting from the Trump years, but that would be the way to go. Since 1979, history has shown that Iran responds when it feels threatened.

When the U.S. went into Iraq, and Iran saw how quickly that regime fell there, that’s when Iran opened up to concessions and negotiation about the nuclear program. Even the JCPOA negotiations began after President Obama implemented a very strong sanctions regime together with Europe, China, and Russia.

Ultimately, do you feel the goal of Iran’s nuclear program is leverage or a weapon?

I think it wants to get as close as possible to a weapon, to a point where if they choose, they could produce one very quickly. At the same time, the Iranians understand that if they actually produced a nuclear weapon, the entire world, not just the U.S. and Israel, would be against it. At that point, there would be unanimity about the need for sanctions which would cut Iran off from the world like North Korea is today.

That would be a major blow economically, but perhaps more than that, it would wound Iran’s pride. Iran does not see itself as a pariah state. The regime thinks of itself as a great power and is on a mission to restore its glorious imperial past. That is what lies behind a lot of their proxy wars and intervention in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and other locations.