The recent developments in the Iranian nuclear talks reveal the difficulties in achieving a breakthrough amid the continuing disagreements between the United States and Iran. Even after 16 months of talks that have taken place in Vienna, no constructive outcome has been achieved that could break the nuclear impasse. During the months of September and November 2022, Iranian officials held meetings with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), however, reports indicated that no substantial progress was made at these meetings.
Recently, Iran agreed to the IAEA visiting the country to discuss the origin of uranium particles that were found at three undeclared sites which Tehran has not responded to yet. The UN watchdog asked Iran to provide “technically credible” explanations on the matter. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said that Iran’s proposal to hold a meeting with the UN watchdog’s officials should focus on clarifying and resolving the uranium traces that were found at the undeclared sites. The IAEA also recently said that it cannot confirm if Iran’s nuclear program is just for civilian purposes. On the other hand, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian recently asked the United States to show “real will” in the nuclear talks and prove that Washington has the intent to lift the sanctions on Iran. He also called the Biden administration’s approach hypocritical and said that Iran was ready to reach an agreement as soon as possible.
Although the official position of the Iranian government has been not to pursue nuclear weapons, Iran in the last four decades has made significant attempts to advance its nuclear capabilities by improving its indigenous resources and technology that puts it on the brink of reaching the nuclear threshold. Iran in recent months has installed hundreds of advanced centrifuges in Natanz and Fordow underground nuclear power plants; these centrifuges will enable Iran to enrich uranium faster. Kamal Kharrazi, the head of Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations and a senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had earlier confirmed that the country has the technical capabilities to develop nuclear weapons, however, it has decided not to do so.
In the current context, Iran’s overall approach toward the nuclear talks has been based on a number of factors. Firstly, Iran has realized the importance of possessing nuclear weapons given the security they bring to the Iranian government. The Iranian ruling elite speculates that even if Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, the international community will likely accept the country’s possession of nuclear weapons, of course with the setbacks, pressures and challenges that it will inevitably face, especially from Israel and its neighboring countries. Secondly, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fatwa against possessing nuclear weapons is still cited by Iranian officials as a binding edict that eliminates the prospects of Iran having a nuclear arsenal. However, former Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi has said that fatwas are not permanent and can change in accordance with regional and global political circumstances, meaning that religious edicts are not static but flexible. Hence, he did not rule out Iran developing or acquiring nuclear weapons. Thirdly, the lack of transparency over Iran’s nuclear program, and the provocative rhetoric from the Iranian government can be viewed in the context of Tehran’s blackmailing strategy to put pressure on the parties at the nuclear talks to achieve concessions, such as the lifting of sanctions to help in reviving its sinking economy. The current Iranian security and intelligence establishment has often rhetorically stated that Iran is not keen on striking a deal with the United States, however, the Raisi government realizes the economic implications of such an approach and remains committed to reviving the nuclear deal; this difference highlights the tensions between the Iranian government and bodies like the IRGC, with the latter intent on escalating tensions with the West and the Gulf states. Fourthly, the Iranian approach toward the nuclear talks over the past few months was based on speculation concerning the outcomes of the US midterms and the Israeli legislative election. Although the US midterms dealt a blow to the Republican Party, with it winning only a slight majority in the House of Representatives, the Biden administration is likely to face stern Republican opposition to its approach toward Iran and any nuclear deal that is reached with Tehran. On the other hand, Benjamin Netanyahu and Yair Lapid criticized each other’s approach toward Iran during the Israeli legislative election campaign, and as Netanyahu is now back in power once again, some of his allies have also speculated about a possible attack targeting Iran’s nuclear sites if the nuclear talks fail to address Tel Aviv’s concerns. Fifthly, Iran is also betting on the energy crisis in the West to potentially prompt a softer stance toward the Iranian government once the nuclear talks resume. In September, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs offered to help Europe with energy supplies once the sanctions on it are lifted.
To conclude, these factors will continue to shape Iran’s behavior toward the nuclear talks and the IAEA. In addition, domestic political tensions and global condemnation of the Iranian government’s violent response to the nationwide protests have further created challenges for any constructive dialogue with Iran. Tehran will likely continue to escalate regional tensions to divert attention from domestic instability in the coming months which will further complicate the prospects for reaching a sustainable nuclear deal.