Back Channel to Tehran — The U.S. and Iran Quietly Look for a Nuclear Deal

By Rafael Hoffman

Daniel Roth

Despite President Joseph Biden’s early enthusiasm for a return to the nuclear development accord with Iran, the road back has been fraught. Talks began in Vienna between Iran and the remaining European signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as the deal was formally known, to negotiate a return of the United States to the agreement. Yet, according to reports, Iran rejected America’s offer of new terms and negotiations broke down.
Walking away from the table, the Biden administration said it had shifted away from its interest in diplomacy with Iran, citing a lack of willingness to compromise and its crackdown on protests that erupted around the country last year.
In the meantime, Iran marched ahead with its nuclear development, enriching uranium to within a few percentage points of weapons grade and starting work on a new facility deep underground. It is moving forward with other diplomatic efforts as well, restoring ties with its regional arch-rival Saudi Arabia.
Over the last few weeks, reports began to surface that the U.S., as well, was once again conducting quiet discussions with Iranian officials, presumably in search of a path to a new deal with less fanfare.
To gain a better understanding of the prospects of a U.S.-Iran agreement and other factors in the complex radius of attempts to ward off threats from the Islamic Republic, Hamodia spoke with Daniel Roth, research director for United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).

What do you make of the rumblings about the U.S. conducting quiet backchannel talks with Iran? Do you think they imply the Biden administration is again seriously pursuing a nuclear deal?

Despite multiple official U.S. denials, saying “there is no deal,” the reporting is credible and strongly suggests a new push to get some sort of “mini-deal” or “interim deal” that – importantly – the Biden team believe they could get without Congressional review. A careful parsing of State Department non-responses to carefully phrased questions like “has there been some momentum towards an understanding?” adds to the conviction of secret negotiations occurring. 

We are confident Brett McGurk, who is a senior Biden advisor, traveled to Oman, allegedly to speak with Iranian diplomats, and [U.S. Iran envoy] Robert Malley met with Iran’s ambassador to the U.N., Iravani. Clearly something is going on. These are people who have an interest in reviving some form of a deal.

The timing also makes sense. Iran is as belligerent as ever, finds itself in league with Moscow and Beijing, is moving quickly toward weaponization and the JCPOA ban on Iranian imports and exports of missiles and drones is set to expire in October. This all makes it more urgent for the White House to avoid the ultimate possibility of an Israeli military strike.

There are political considerations at stake as well. As a candidate, one of President Biden’s foreign policy planks was not just a return to the JCPOA, but a “longer stronger” deal. So far, his attempts to achieve that have failed badly. Now that he might only have a year and half longer in office, the President likely wants to secure an Iran deal – in whatever form that might take, because “a deal is a deal” and can be sold as such – before he leaves or if he genuinely hopes to run again. There are a lot of high-ranking people in this administration who would see that as a major achievement. 

Talks in Vienna for a comprehensive deal failed. What type of agreement do you think the U.S. is now looking for?

Right now I think they want to reduce the overall heat. They’re looking for an interim agreement that would freeze uranium enrichment. It would be a kind of time-out, not a return to the JCPOA. But that would still be a diplomatic success from the administration’s point of view, since its pauses Iran’s nuclear development.

In exchange, the U.S. would give them some limited sanctions relief. I’ve heard it classified as a “less for less” agreement. The U.S. would be offering less than they did in Vienna, but they would also be getting a lot less since Iran is already very close to weapons-grade enrichment and a pause wouldn’t reverse any of their past work.

Various centrifuge machines line the hall damaged on April 11, 2021, at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, some 200 miles south of the capital Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Administration officials have cited what they claim are human rights abuses in reaction to the protests over the death of Masa Amini as a key reason for breaking off formal negotiations with Iran. How big a role do you think this factor actually plays in the Biden administration’s calculus on Iran?

I think the human rights issues were basically a convenient excuse for the State Department. They could say that they’re not focused on a deal since they are trying to hold Iran’s human rights violators accountable. To their credit, the administration has sanctioned some individuals tied to the crackdown against protests.

However, the fact that these meetings between U.S. and Iranian officials are going on now seems to prove that the way the State Department was using it in regard to nuclear talks was just a smokescreen.

Iran has done a good job of skirting U.S. sanctions with the help of China and Russia. That being the case, does Iran have enough to gain from sanction relief to make it interested in seriously pursuing a deal?

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (in turban) listens to the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi while visiting an exhibition of Iran’s new nuclear achievements in Tehran, April 10, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP, File)

While Iran has done a good job at skirting a lot of the effect of sanctions, they do still hamper their economy and their difficult financial situation fed the protests around the country. They’re exporting one million barrels of oil per day, almost entirely to China. Iran would like to export three million per day to other countries as well, as they were doing before the U.S. left the JCPOA. That would put a lot more money in its coffers and allow the regime to do more to promote its revolutionary ideals.

It’s also important to realize that while Iran is getting around sanctions in many ways, doing so takes up a lot of resources. 

Iran would like to trade more freely. China has been its biggest lifeline, but the future of that arrangement is uncertain. If the U.S. decides that it has had enough of the criticism over its failure to enforce sanctions and cracks down, Iran would be in a bind. Tehran officially says that they don’t care about sanctions and have successfully developed a resistance economy, but a lot of that is bluster. It would get a lot of benefits from comprehensive sanctions relief.

What more could the U.S. do to enforce its sanctions?

The U.S. could sanction the people and entities in China who are purchasing Iranian oil. A lot of the oil coming to China is being processed in small teapot refineries who would not want to deal with U.S. sanctions. I acknowledge that it is difficult to get good information about what goes on in China, but UANI  has dug deep and named some of these entities. I expect that if there was a political will to do so, the U.S. government could get the information it needs.

Congress can help as well. A bill called the Stop Harboring Iranian Petroleum (SHIP) Act would crack down on different parties in the supply chain of Iranian oil. These transactions do not only involve the supplier and buyer. There are a lot of stops in between, and going after those involved in the process would help.

Another step that the U.S. has not taken is to sanction the Supreme Leader himself. A State Department spokesman was recently asked why not, and he basically dodged the question. I presume the administration fears that targeting the Supreme Leader would be viewed in Tehran as too much of a provocation. However, we feel that it would have a valuable symbolic value to the people of Iran who want to see changes from their regime. This would send them a clear message that America is taking their struggle seriously.

What motivates Iran’s newly heightened enrichment levels? Are they trying to get to their weapon, do they want leverage?

It’s simply part of the same game of nuclear blackmail that Iran has been playing for decades. I must give them credit as they play it very well.

That said, this is a new stage of the game as Iran is now extremely close to achieving a nuclear weapon. According to some experts, they likely have enough material to produce seven nuclear bombs if they decide to do so.

This makes it even more frustrating that the U.S. seems to still be going hat-in-hand to Iran trying to get concessions. It seems clear that the diplomatic path is narrowing. Iran simply lacks any reason to back down at this stage. The only thing we have seen it responds to is the credible threat of the use of force, but since the Biden administration came to office, the U.S. has been very reluctant to use it. Secretary [of Defense] Austin was asked recently how many times Iran or its proxies had targeted U.S. ships or other items; the answer was 83. When he was then asked how many times the U.S. responded, the answer was four. That discrepancy tells you about the U.S.’ positioning.

Iran’s domestically built centrifuges are displayed in an exhibition of the country’s nuclear achievements, in Tehran, Feb. 8. (IRIB via AP, File)

Is there a specific goal or message in Iran’s beginning construction on what sounds like a very expensive and elaborate deep underground nuclear facility?

They have an obvious strategic motivation. The more facilities they have and the harder they are to strike, the harder it is for the IDF to take them out, should the situation come to that.

On a somewhat related note, the Israelis were understandably unhappy with the IAEA’s decision to close its probe into atomic material found at the Marivan site. Netanyahu called it a capitulation to Iranian pressure and the situation makes it difficult to disagree with him. Iran said that the particles were there from when the site was under Soviet control decades ago. Were that actually the case, it raises the question of why the IAEA first now decided to accept that explanation from Iran. I have respect for Rafael Grossi, who heads the IAEA, and he has always come across to me as a very straightforward fellow, but this decision defied logic. 

How does Iran’s quasi-reconciliation with Saudi Arabia figure into the U.S.’ interests of containing Tehran’s nuclear program and other regional activities?

The Trump administration achieved a goal of getting Gulf states to downgrade their ties with Iran with an objective of isolating the regime. Now, two and a half years into the Biden administration, every single Gulf state has upgraded its ties to Iran, including Bahrain which had been a hold-out on these issues in the past.

What was even harder to come to terms with for those who view Iran as a major threat was that when Saudi-Iran detente started in March, the U.S. said they looked at it as a positive step for the region. It’s very hard to understand how the Biden administration took a favorable view of China stepping into the space the U.S. ceded in the Middle East, to make a nation that poses a serous global threat into one now viewed as less of a pariah. Likely, a good deal of the administration’s position came from its eagerness to see the Civil War in Yemen resolved, as this has been a key goal for some on the activist left.

What might back up that explanation was that at a very recent State Department press conference, the spokesman was asked how the administration viewed the possibility of Iran and Egypt restoring ties, and the response to that was that the U.S. takes issue with any country looking to normalize collaboration with the Islamic Republic of Iran. That seems to imply that the administration’s position on Saudi Arabia was an aberration and had some specific explanation.

Iran is very concerned about having good ties with its neighbors, at least on a superficial level. It sees itself as head of the Muslim world with a grand ambition of uniting the region against Israel. The Supreme Leader wrote in his book 25 years ago that the timeline to eliminate Israel was 25 years, which is now down to 20. In that context, if Iran could stand in the way of the Abraham Accords expanding to Saudi Arabia, that would be a huge coup for Iran.

What considerations do you think the Saudis have for restoring ties with Iran?

The Saudis are hedging their bets. The Biden team signaled very early on that the U.S.-Saudi partnership would not be sacrosanct and that in general it was not as committed to the Middle East as the U.S. was in the past. China filled that gap to some extent and it’s not clear who the stronger horse is now. Against that reality, it makes sense that Saudi Arabia should keep its options open.

Iran gains trade partners in Russia and China. What do Russia and China have to gain from Iran? In what way is it an important partner in the new anti-Western axis?

Khorramshahr-4 missile is launched at an undisclosed location, Iran. (Iranian Defense Ministry via AP)

China chiefly wants cheap Iranian oil and other resources. It’s shown a willingness to break U.S. sanctions to open more trade. It also occupies an important strategic position in China’s Belt and Road initiative.

What Russia gets is hazier. Iran supplied some valuable military hardware for the Ukraine war, especially the large quantity of drones they sold. Iran also helped Russia set up their own drone factories. Besides that, Iran occupied an important geographic position at the nexus of the Middle East and Central Asia which has always been important for Russia to have a foot in.

As both the JCPOA and “maximum pressure” approach initiated by the Trump administration seem to have failed to alter Iran’s behavior, what do you feel would be the U.S.’ most effective road on Iran?

The options are limited, though I would push back a bit on contentions that the maximum pressure campaign did not work. It was implemented for a very short time, since Trump left the deal in 2017 and left office at the beginning of 2021. I think that it was working. If you want to limit Iran’s nefarious activities, squeezing the amount of money it has access to will constrain its ability to finance its terror proxies. The smaller Tehran’s budget, the safer the rest of the world is. Under Trump, Iran’s foreign exchange was down to a few billion and it makes you wonder what kind of results it could have borne over time.

Against all of this it’s important to remember the level of threat that Iran poses. Last year, when Iran started working on its hypersonic missile, an Iranian magazine ran a cover that showed a rocket and said, “400 seconds to Tel Aviv,” printed in Hebrew. Now that Iran claims to have developed its hypersonic missile that can evade all air defense systems, they put this image on a billboard. The Biden administration does not seem to acknowledge the seriousness of Iran’s threats, but history has taught us to take tyrants at their word.

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