The United States and the EU recently criticized the new Iranian government’s complacency in regard to revive the nuclear deal amid the stalled Vienna talks. The United States has warned Iran that the window of opportunity will not be open forever after consultations with its allies. Meanwhile, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during his first UN speech lashed out at the United States for pressurizing Tehran and using economic coercion to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran has also been stepping up its uranium enrichment in recent months. Tehran’s approach towards the ongoing nuclear talks indicates the prevailing mistrust and divergences between itself and the United States as well as the challenges ahead to revive the nuclear deal.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi recently told the UN General Assembly that the agency is concerned about several unresolved issues regarding Iran’s failure to explain uranium traces found before 2003 at undeclared sites. In addition, he stressed that despite the recent agreement allowing the agency temporary access to Iran’s nuclear sites, its ability to monitor Tehran’s nuclear program remains limited. Furthermore, Iran recently reshuffled its nuclear negotiating team by demoting Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. Ali Bagheri, who is a protégé and confidant of President Ebrahim Raisi, has replaced Araghchi. Araghchi was one of Iran’s key negotiators during the talks leading to the 2015 nuclear deal, and several reports indicate that now his role will be largely advisory. Bagheri was a strong critic of how Rouhani handled the nuclear negotiations and accused him of making unreasonable concessions, which allowed foreign powers to access Iran’s nuclear plants and security sites. During the recently held IAEA General Conference, Mohammed Eslami, chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said that Iran hopes to see the removal of all US sanctions in order for the nuclear deal to be revived. The reshuffle brings Eslami and Bagheri to the forefront and sends strong messages to the West reflecting Iran’s inflexibility and uncompromising stance in the upcoming phase of nuclear talks.
One of the most important points of divergence between the United States and Iran is in regard to sanctions relief, particularly its extent. So far, the Biden administration has not indicated any intention to lift all the sanctions on Iran especially amid increasing threats stemming from its regional behavior. Moreover, Iran has made significant nuclear advances in the past few months which will make it much more difficult to push back its nuclear breakout time. Several reports and forecasts also indicate that returning to the nuclear deal will not guarantee a change in Iran’s behavior nor prevent a regional arms race. Hence, Washington is demanding a “stronger and longer deal” with Iran, however, Tehran’s approach indicates its reluctance to accept Washington’s proposals.
Iran’s approach to nuclear negotiations largely hinges on domestic and regional considerations. President Ebrahim Raisi had criticized Rouhani’s approach of appeasement and providing concessions to the West, particularly to the United States. He intends to project himself as a strongman and has reiterated that the Iranian government will not succumb to US pressure. Russian and Chinese support for Iran also becomes an important factor in Tehran’s nuclear negotiations. Beijing has defended Iran’s concerns and has pledged to extend financial support, reflecting growing Chinese investments in the country, particularly in the construction of strategic maritime ports and railroads. Iran also understands that the Biden administration remains under domestic pressure concerning its recent foreign policy decisions and intends to take advantage of this predicament by escalating tensions. Iran’s regional political and military involvement remains another primary point of contention. Much of Iran’s revenues come from its economic deals with countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. In these countries, Tehran has used its political and military clout to contest US interests and it is unlikely that Iran will risk its regional interests by changing its modus operandi.
In light of the aforementioned, any further escalation by Iran will likely result in its isolation by global and regional powers. Moreover, the United States and the EU are likely to take harsher steps in case Iran continues to violate the nuclear deal’s redlines. Further sanctions are likely to diminish any prospects of Raisi reviving the ailing Iranian economy, and will lead to domestic pressure and another round of protests across the country which will no doubt further undermine the declining legitimacy of the political system.