The government of President Ebrahim Raisi has been in place since early August and yet Tehran is still unsure about when and how it should resume the nuclear talks with world powers in Vienna. Those talks were suspended in June, just before the Iranian presidential elections. The Biden administration had anticipated a resumption of the talks by now. It is warning that the door to diplomatic track might close unless Tehran soon returns to the negotiations. The political posturing aside, there is no doubt that both Washington and Tehran want the nuclear talks to resume but each is looking to re-enter the talks with the strongest negotiating hand possible.
War of words
The American side wanted to give Ebrahim Raisi some time to choose his government and his nuclear negotiators. When nothing happened, in response to what has been deemed as deliberate delaying tactics by Iran, Western powers turned to the IAEA as an instrument of pressure against Tehran. This approach has so far worked. Western powers, concerned about Iran’s expanding nuclear activities and citing the IAEA’s troubles in accessing sensitive nuclear sites – IAEA says it had not been able to have access to certain sites in Iran since 25 May – threatened to issue a rebuke against Iran at the IAEA’s general conference on 20-24 September.
Such a step could have been a prelude to the IAEA referring Iran to the UN Security Council, a development that Tehran would hate to see. This is exactly what happened to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his first term (2005-2009) in office when he acted intransigently toward the IAEA and Iran’s file was referred to the UN and international sanctions followed. This was something that the new Raisi government wanted to avoid and a quick visit to Tehran by IAEA head Rafael Grossi was arranged.
On 26 September, the IAEA said that Tehran has failed to fulfil its commitment to allow access to international inspectors. New sites of concern, such as the centrifuge component manufacturing site at Karaj, were also mentioned by the IAEA. The latest inspection deal between Iran and the IAEA was signed only in early September. Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, Kazem Gharib-Abadi, rejected the agency’s complaints and instead essentially accused IAEA boss Rafael Grossi for acting as an agent of Western intelligence services. Meanwhile, it has to be noted that the criticism of Gharib-Abadi that the IAEA looks away when Israel carries out sabotage attacks at Iran’s nuclear facilities is hugely sensitive.
No one wants a “lose-lose” scenario
The unintended but possible implication of such explosive charges against the IAEA is that Iranian officials might lose the ability to control the diplomatic process going forward. If Iranian officials repeat this message that the IAEA is basically collaborating with Israel and other intelligence services then there will invariably be pressure building up in Tehran to stop cooperation with agency altogether. Such a development would be a major crisis for the Iranian nuclear issue but also for the credibility of the IAEA in general.
The Iranians had expected the Russians and the Chinese to stop any Western action against Iran at the IAEA and UN levels but chose still to accommodate the demands of the IAEA. This was mostly about preventing the Europeans moving closer to the American position in regards to Iran’s nuclear file. However, even as Tehran can for now feel comfortable that its nuclear file will not return to the UN, the reality is that only an agreement with the Americans can bring about an end to the sanctions that is Iran’s chief policy priority.
In Washington, the consensus view is that the presence of the Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian at the UN General Assembly in late September in New York has worsened the prospects of a nuclear agreement in the next few weeks or even months. Amir Abdollahian was uncompromising in his messaging in New York. He told American interlocutors and European officials that Iran will only return to negotiations and a new deal if Iran’s “rights and interests” are respected by Western powers. Put simply, Amir-Abdollahian’s message was that the Iran-US standoff is much bigger than just what Donald Trump did when he walked away from the 2015 nuclear deal, which he did in 2018, and soon after reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran.
Still, despite Amir-Abdollahian’s stance, the latest rounds of diplomatic skirmishes at the IAEA and the UN show a number of basic realities for all parties involved. For the Iranians, it is by now abundantly clear that their economic situation cannot stand the sanctions for ever. Based on one Iranian official account, Iran’s GDP contracted by 57% since 2018. And Russia and China have shown that they cannot help Iran overcome its economic pains while it is under sanctions. The Iranians do not have a Plan B, but nor do the Americans. The Biden White House occasionally hints at the use of military action to stop Iran’s nuclear program but this is still only a distant scenario. All in all, Tehran and Washington returning to the talks in Vienna is only a question of time.