Hard Questions, Tough Answers: The Iran nuclear talks resume (November 22, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: Nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers resume on November 29 in Vienna. How would you describe the global and Middle East strategic backdrop to this event?

A: This is the second round of talks between the Biden administration and Iran, and the first with the representatives of Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi. The declared objective of all parties is to negotiate a renewal of the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement reached in 2015 by the Obama administration. The JCPOA was effectively canceled by the Trump administration--egged on by Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu--in 2018.

The overall prognosis among many experts and veteran diplomats is pessimistic. Raisi is hardline. The Iranians demand US cancellation of all sanctions as a precondition for proceeding. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global watchdog on nuclear issues, cites conspicuous recent Iranian violations of its commitments regarding nuclear development: eleven times more enriched uranium in its stockpile than Iran is permitted under the 2015 agreement, enrichment to the 20 percent and 60 percent levels, and dismantling of monitoring cameras. IAEA chief Rafael Grossi was on his way to Tehran at the time of writing on Monday this week.

The Biden administration is in some quarters perceived, in the aftermath of US withdrawal from Afghanistan, as lacking in strategic commitment regarding the Greater Middle East. US coordination of negotiating strategy with Russia and China is problematic in view of Washington’s difficult relationship with those two powers.

Turning to Israel, the Bennett government has rejected former PM Netanyahu’s confrontational approach to US support for the JCPOA in favor of quiet diplomacy. But it does not hide its concern that a new agreement may not be tough enough on Iran’s nuclear program and will once again ignore additional components of Iran’s strategic buildup: its missile program and its hegemonic drive westward all the way to the Syrian and Lebanese borders with Israel.


Q: How does the Israeli security community assess the renewal of talks?

A: The security community for the most part never backed Netanyahu’s confrontational approach. It allows that, while the original JCPOA was flawed, it nevertheless was better than no agreement at all insofar as it delayed Iran’s progress toward a military nuclear option. Here is Likud former defense minister Moshe Yaalon, on November 21: “The Iran deal was a mistake; withdrawing from it was even worse”.

Now Israeli security officials fear that a new agreement will comprise too many compromises with the Iranians. They fear the Biden administration lacks a solid military strategic commitment to the interests of its friends in the region. The Israeli defense establishment is also concerned lest the radical left wing of the Democratic party succeed in restricting or reducing US military aid to Israel.

The most recent example of a reduced US resolve that is cited, following the Afghanistan withdrawal, is a drone attack by Iranian proxy forces last month on a contingent of some 200 US troops stationed at Tanf in southeast Syria near the borders with Jordan and Iraq. This largely symbolic or ‘tripwire’ American deployment is understood as a statement of a strategic commitment to help blunt the advance westward into the Levant of Iran and its proxies.

The attack failed because Israeli intelligence gave the US early warning. Yet significantly, it was cited by Iran as retaliation for Israeli attacks against Iranian targets in Syria. Equally significantly, the US has not retaliated. Seen as a statement of Iran’s perception of regional deterrence, the attack and its aftermath appear to reflect a sense in Tehran that Israeli deterrence is strong (otherwise, why not retaliate against Israel?), but America’s is weak.

As a reflection of these concerns, the Bennett government is channeling additional funds to the Israeli defense budget. The budgetary source is enhanced income from the hi-tech and natural gas sectors, both of which flourished during the past two pandemic years. The idea is to spend the money on research and development of an Israeli offensive missile option and of a laser anti-missile defensive weapon. It is not hard to see in this direction Israel’s growing concern regarding Iran and Iranian proxies like Lebanese Hezbollah.


Q: And how does Iran view renewal of the talks?

A: This is the real question troubling the six powers gearing up to talk with Iran (the US indirectly) in Vienna. What are Iran’s real intentions? How badly does it want, or need, a renewed JCPOA? If Iran sticks to its demand that US lifting of sanctions must precede discussion of a renewed JCPOA, then a new agreement is highly doubtful. Would Iran evince interest in a partial agreement, limited in time and scope, that some US and European negotiators reason could skirt areas of deadlock and gain time for all involved? On the other hand if, as some speculate, the US returns to Vienna with a call for a ‘longer and stronger’ JCPOA that takes into account the time elapsed and the Iranian nuclear excesses registered since 2018, the Raisi government is likely to walk out.

In this case some will conclude that, for Iran, the Vienna discussions are little more than a delaying tactic while Tehran’s military nuclear program creates more faits accomplis. Note that until nine months ago it was generally accepted that Iran’s decision to exceed JCPOA nuclear limits was an understandable protest against the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the pact. In contrast, it is now increasingly understood internationally that Iran’s violations are a problem in and of themselves.

Here we have to factor in not only Iran’s traditional negotiating skills, which have been honed in the course of millenia and are formidable. We also have to ask to what extent recent Iranian successes in opening up new economic opportunities--long-term oil deals with China, membership alongside Russia and China in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization--are understood by Tehran as viable alternatives to ongoing US-imposed sanctions dictated by a failed effort to renew the JCPOA. Note that President Raisi recently opted for attendance at a meeting of Eurasian leaders in Tajikistan rather than participating in the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York.

Note, in this context, the assessment of Conflicts Forum director Alastair Crooke, who is attuned to Iran-related developments, on the pro-Hezbollah, pro-Syria, Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen satellite network: “In the event of ‘no deal’, Russia and China will not blame Iran, but rather will blame Washington (rightly), Iranian oil will continue to flow, and the economy will gradually integrate into the Eurasian Economic Community.”


Q: And the rest of the Middle East?

A: Despite, or alongside their openness toward Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are already dialoguing with Iran. Concerns about US lack of resolve in the Middle East are clearly a factor here.

As they are with Turkey, which has lately managed to muddy relations with the US, Russia and Iran. This may explain why President Erdogan was happy to release an Israeli couple jailed briefly in Istanbul over ridiculous espionage charges. The Turkish president made clear that he now hopes to upgrade Turkey’s relations with Israel, which have been troubled for more than a decade. Israel can conceivably help Erdogan not only in Washington but in Moscow and the Gulf as well.


Q: Bottom line: Where are Israel, the US and the Middle East in the event of a successful renewal of the JCPOA? In the event of failure in Vienna?

A: If the Vienna talks succeed, and if Iran is seen to be complying with its obligations (as it did, broadly, between 2015 and 2018), then the Iran nuclear issue will to a large extent be put on hold until around 2030, at least at the diplomatic level. If Vienna fails, and assuming Iran maintains its current nuclear pace, then some form of near-term military escalation involving Iran, Israel and/or possibly the United States appears inevitable. Note that even success in Vienna leaves open the strong possibility that after 2030, in other words in less than a decade, Iran could opt for a quick military nuclear breakout.

There is one more ‘if’. Suppose the Vienna talks succeed but the renewed JCPOA, like its predecessor, ignores Iran’s missile program and its hegemonic drive across Iraq, Syria and southern Lebanon. Those military efforts by Iran will continue. Israel will view them, not without reason, as directed in whole or in part against it. Note that Israel has been engaged in a ‘campaign between wars’ against Iran’s military efforts in Syria for several years now. Here it is safe to predict that those efforts will continue, and probably escalate, and that Israel will also continue its effort to sabotage Iranian nuclear installations--an effort the US is reportedly skeptical about under any scenario.

Finally, note that for Israel and the Sunni Arab states, the Iran issue has for several years now eclipsed the Palestinian issue. The perception of an Iranian threat, coupled with the impression of Palestinian intransigence, were major factors (alongside US strategic incentives) behind the 2020 decision of four Arab states to normalize relations with Israel.

Here two questions come to mind. First, would a renewed JCPOA that is so successful that it truly diminishes the perception of an Iranian threat have the effect of refocusing Arab state attention toward the Palestinian issue? Would this lead to renewed and expanded Arab pressures on Israel to take steps toward a two-state solution? And second, would a renewed JCPOA have the effect of energizing Biden administration and European Union pressures on Israel regarding the Palestinians?

That could prove a dilemma for the Bennett-Lapid-led coalition in Israel. By virtue of its very left-right-Arab composition, Israel’s current government is incapable of entertaining any but the most modest initiatives regarding the Palestinians.