US, European and Iranian diplomats explain how the negotiations on a return to the Iran nuclear deal have been eclipsed by Russia’s war on Ukraine.
A picture shows a newspaper stall with Etemad newspaper’s front page bearing a heading in Farsi, “The night of the end of the JCPOA,” in the capital Tehran on Aug. 16, 2022. – ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images
January 4, 2023
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen on Tuesday that the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is more or less dead, according to a report in Israel Hayom.
While a senior US official speaking to Al-Monitor denied the report, the United States and Israel have nevertheless found common ground in focusing instead on Iran’s brutal crackdown on protesters and its backing of Russia in Ukraine.
The blame game around the nuclear talks has intensified as hopes to revive the deal fade.
One European diplomat involved in the talks faults Tehran. The official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Tehran put itself in a perfect storm: the internal situation, transferring weapons to Russia and deadlock over the nuclear deal.”
US and European sources say Iran dithered and piled on demands when a deal was close on several occasions last year, most recently in September. Since then, Brussels and Washington have focused on a backup plan to isolate and pressure Tehran for its crackdown and its support for Russia.
“Western powers have a united approach. What is different is that some members are putting pressure on the human rights issue, such as Germany,” said the European diplomat. “The Ukraine war is contaminating all other dossiers, including the Iran nuclear program negotiations.”
All that doesn’t mean the deal is dead, but the trend is toward the grave. The JCPOA has pretty much dropped from US officials’ statements and has been replaced by an opaque commitment to diplomacy as the preferred and best way to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.
Iran claims it still wants a deal.
The latest attempts to resume talks over reviving the nuclear deal saw Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visit Oman on Dec. 28 and meet top officials following a bilateral with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in Jordan on the sidelines of the Iraq summit there on Dec. 20.
Some regarded the Amman meeting as a positive sign following months of deadlock, but Amir-Abdollahian warned, “If other parties, especially the US, do not stop the hypocrisy, it is not clear that the window that is open today will remain open tomorrow.”
Although Borrell has said that the EU is pursuing a two-track policy — reviving the JCPOA and putting pressure on Iran via sanctions — Brussels and Washington are aligned in their pessimism about the prospects for a deal.
Privately, EU officials have described “difficult and frank” meetings with Iranian officials. The EU diplomat told Al-Monitor, “Theirs is a huge problem that’s bigger than the JCPOA: Iran along with North Korea are the only countries providing weapons to Russia.”
EU diplomats have warned Iran of the consequences of its support for Russia, citing evidence of Iranian drones being used by Russian forces in Ukraine, but Tehran continues to deny the allegations. Its narrative has always been that it sent Russia a few drones before the war, but none later on.
Ukraine’s deputy intelligence chief Gen. Vadym Skibitsky told local media Wednesday that Moscow had used approximately 660 Iranian-made drones in Ukraine so far. He added that as many as 300 new drones were arriving now as part of a contract with Iran.
“Iranians have the best diplomats and they are aware that they are getting more and more isolated,” said the EU diplomat. “But the power isn’t in the Foreign Ministry, nor with [Iranian President Ebrahim] Raisi,” the official added, alluding to it being in the hands of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Former Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Mousavian, who was a member of the nuclear negotiating team between 2003 and 2009, told Al-Monitor, “The nuclear deal is on the agenda but not on the table.”
Mousavian said the internal situation in Iran has discouraged Western powers on the nuclear deal, explaining that they have decided to put the human rights issue above the nuclear file.
He accused the European countries of campaigning against Iran, saying, “Europeans are playing a more active role to create an international consensus against Iran, more because of the Ukraine issue. We can say that currently and compared to the US, the European have become “more Catholic than the Pope” in advancing hostile policies against Iran.”
The same senior US official, who is involved in the talks, told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Over the past months, Iran’s leadership has made a series of extremely consequential and costly decisions.”
“Domestically, [they are] suppressing their people instead of listening to them; internationally, siding with Russia’s losing war of aggression; diplomatically, rejecting several fair deals that would have led to significant sanctions relief and refusing to cooperate with the IAEA.”
The US official added that such behavior comes with consequences and is “cutting off the regime from its people and from much of the world. They should think about whether this is the path they wish to be on and where it is leading.”
These accusations were refuted by an Iranian official who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Tehran was committed from the beginning to reaching an agreement, but the politicization of the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency prevented that,” he insisted.
The official accused Washington of prioritizing the interest of Israel, saying, “Israel does not want a nuclear agreement or the lifting of sanctions on Tehran and the US abides by that; it’s very simple.”
He claimed that the Western powers are stalling in preparation for military options, “just as they did with Russia since 2014 after the Minsk agreement.” He alleged that former German Chancellor Angela “Merkel said it clearly: They were buying time for Ukraine’s arms buildup and they’ve been doing the same with Iran, but it didn’t work. Why shall we trust them when they didn’t stand by their commitments?”. The former Chancellor has not made such statement.
The narrative on the other side is different. Western officials are accusing Iran of buying time to proceed with its nuclear program, another rationale for not letting up on sanctions.
The senior US official warned that his country will not stand by idly as Iran continues to expand its nuclear program, saying, “We will not stop tightening our economic pressure.”
“While they are spending their time building a nuclear program that will not provide them with any benefit, we are spending our time building the broadest international consensus ever to oppose it and the regime’s other destabilizing policies,” the official added.
Iran is “piling enriched uranium but not going toward the bomb,” said the EU diplomat. “They are in control if their whole nuclear cycle is still not crossing the red lines.”
Prior to the war in Ukraine, US accusations regarding what it describes as Iran’s destabilizing policies were limited to the Middle East, but reports of Iran supplying Russia with drones positioned Tehran at the heart of the emerging conflict, the big question here is over the extent of the Iranian meddling and whether it reaches the level of Western accusations of providing Russia with new drones.
Tehran does not hide that it provided Russia with drones before the war, but it denies that it is doing so now. Defense Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani said Ukraine has provided no proof of Russia’s use of Iranian drones in the war.
“Despite all of the regime’s denials, there can be no doubt anymore in anyone’s mind that they are siding with the aggressor,” said the senior US official, adding that this is a very consequential decision. “They are the number-one military supplier of a country waging an unprovoked war of conquest and aggression in Europe. Our hope, of course, is that they quickly shift course.”
The official assessed that following the fruitless talks in September and the eruption of the protests following the death of Mahsa Amini in custody, Washington has shifted its focus to supporting the protesters.
He said, “Our focus is on supporting the fundamental rights of the Iranian people who are facing a brutal crackdown, sanctioning those responsible for human rights abuses and on taking steps to disrupt and deter the regime’s support for Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” while “keeping the door to diplomacy open because we still believe that is the best way to resolve this issue.”
The European diplomat said that one casualty of the breakdown in the JCPOA talks may be a deal to release US prisoners held in Iran, where three US citizens are currently imprisoned.
“A prisoner deal was finalized but has not materialized,” the official said.
The US official insisted that indirect engagement continues with Iran to secure the release of US citizens detained in Iran. “We’ve continued to have indirect engagements with Iran in particular on the issue of our unjustly detained citizens Siamak [Namazi], Morad [Tahbaz] and Emad [Shargi]. It has been and remains a priority for the Biden administration to make sure they return home as soon as possible.”
Until there is a resolution of the Ukraine war, the European diplomat concluded, there will be no progress on the nuclear deal.