Unexpectedly, the nuclear negotiations in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear program have come to a halt.
Acting on orders from Moscow, Russian envoy to the talks Mikhail Ulyanov—who in an interview just days ago expressed pride that under his leadership and with help from the Chinese, the Iranians were about to get a much better deal than they could have hoped for in their wildest dreams—fell in line and led to a freeze in the talks. But he wasn’t acting alone.
Last week’s round of negotiations in Vienna was surprising right from the opening gambit. Several parties arrived with demands, both new and old.
The Iranians laid out at least three new demands: that the list of entities to be removed from the sanctions list be reopened and that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and its terrorist arms be added to it; precisely-worded guarantees and compensatory mechanisms that would kick in should the United States withdraw from the new agreement; and a promise about the final result of the International Atomic Energy Organization’s open investigations, due in June.
The Americans made a new demand, namely that the Iranians commit to stopping their aggression in the Persian Gulf, including the launch of a direct communications channel between Iran and the United States. Even the Chinese appear to have made demands having to do with restrictions placed on them in the past that are totally unconnected to the Iran nuclear negotiations.
Still, it appears that the straw that broke the camel’s back was Russia’s demand that its trade with Iran be exempted from sanctions applied in response to its invasion of Ukraine.
The disadvantages of the deal
While the negotiations have been frozen, it is likely they will resume soon, as all sides want a deal. Most of the demands, other than that of Russia, are issues that can be resolved. It is important at this time to lay out the disadvantages and dangers of the deal and point out steps that Israel will have to take (apparently on its own) if it is signed.
The nascent agreement, spearheaded by Russia and China, has the full support of the American negotiating team led by Robert Malley (minus those senior team members who have resigned because of his ineffectual conduct). The deal is both bad and dangerous, and allows Iran to secure a nuclear bomb in the next few years, which will lead to a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East.
The deal, which is partly based on the 2015 agreement, hasn’t solved a single one of the initial agreement’s fundamental problems, and adds new ones. A “proper” agreement would ensure Iran does become a nuclear threshold state, let alone a nuclear one, but the many mistakes made in the negotiations have not allowed anything close to a deal of that kind to be reached.
The deal is not the “longer and stronger” agreement that Biden promised. According to the timeline of the original deal, the limitations on Iran’s nuclear program are due to expire soon, and will certainly do so under this agreement.
The deal that has been reached is based only on goodwill, and will give the Iranians everything they want and more—while demanding nearly nothing in return, other than that Tehran stop some of its more blatant violations of the original agreement.
The dangers of the deal
Under the new agreement, world powers will almost immediately (in 2025) lose any practical ability to “snap back” sanctions. This will leave them without any way of pressuring the Iranians, who—very soon after the deal is signed—will see assets worth hundreds of billions of dollars released.
The IAEA suffered an embarrassing defeat following IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi’s visit to Vienna. The sides presented the agreements as an achievement because, unlike the decision to close the investigation of the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program under the 2015 deal, this time, the signing of a new deal won’t end the ongoing investigations.
The IAEA has closed the investigation into Iran’s illegal use of metal uranium, leaving three cases open, in which Iran must respond by the time the IAEA Board of Governors meets in June. Can anyone doubt that after a new deal is signed, no one will dare demand real answers from the Iranians or threaten the deal? Even without a deal, it doesn’t look like anything will happen in June. The stature of the IAEA, which is supposed to oversee the deal, has been irreparably damaged, though if the deal were to fall through it might be possible to repair the harm.
The deal also does not address oversight of Iran’s weapons development program (Section T). It appears that a secret 2015 agreement between the Russians, the Iranians and the Americans, about a lack of intention to enforce that section of the JCPOA, is still in effect. We can assume that the new draft agreement also includes secret documents and side deals.
In addition, the deal includes an almost immediate lifting of most of the sanctions—on organizations, institutions and individuals—regardless of the nuclear program. And this comes at a time when the Iran-backed Houthis are attacking oil facilities in Riyadh and threatening an escalation, and the Iranians are firing precision ballistic missiles at American targets in Iraq. There can be no bigger prize for Shi’ite terrorism.
The goal: To weaken Iran
Whether or not the deal is signed, it is important to expose now all of the agreement’s problematic details, and to create a wave of opposition to it in the U.S. Congress going into the midterm elections.
This is a watershed opportunity to make opposition to the deal a bilateral issue and bring some Democrats on board, so a message can be sent that business as usual with the Iranians is very dangerous. This possibility is why the Iranians have asked for an addendum stipulating that they are the ones who will decide if the United States [and Britain] leave the deal, and ensuring that if they do, Iran is compensated by receiving legitimacy to enrich uranium to 60%, as well as permission to set up thousands of advanced centrifuges.
In the mid and long term, Israel must prepare for a campaign to weaken Iran in every way possible—economically, diplomatically, militarily, politically, through cyber and kinetic means and more—and invest the appropriate resources in every aspect of this, as it has already begun to do.
Iran’s leader must realize that the era in which the head of the serpent remains invulnerable is over. This change first appeared in the defense outlook Netanyahu published in 2018, and to which Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recently returned.
Responsibility for the campaign to weaken Iran should be assigned to the Mossad, the Israel Defense Forces and the Israel Security Agency, in conjunction with the Foreign Ministry and the political leadership, through the National Security Council. It is crucial to build a mechanism that can carry messages to the international audience, especially in the United States, that underscore the direct and expected nuclear threat to every U.S. city after Iran finishes testing its intercontinental ballistic missiles. If the deal isn’t signed, this could be done in partnership with the American administration.
Before the talks halted, rather than exerting maximum financial pressure combined with a credible military threat, the United States was ready to sign a dangerous, disgraceful “contract of capitulation” in Vienna. The halt has created an unplanned opportunity for the United States and Israel to build a joint plan that will force Iran to move quickly toward a “longer, stronger deal,” one that would truly block its path to a nuclear weapon.
Brig. Gen. (Res.) Professor Jacob Nagel is a former national security adviser to the prime minister and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Meir Ben Shabbat is head of the Misgav Institute for Zionist Strategy & National Security in Jerusalem. He served as Israel’s national security advisor and head of the National Security Council between 2017 and 2021. Prior to that, for 25 years he held senior positions in the Israel Security Agency (Shabak).
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.