The talks in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear program have not led anywhere, and according to reports, Tehran is already requesting a break. The reasons a new agreement is improbable are clear; The only deal that could be reached would likely be weaker than the problematic 2015 agreement.
For Iran, the negotiations are not about the 2015 deal but the removal of the sanctions. Iran demands the total removal of sanctions before any other nuclear-related discussions and compensation. Furthermore, the Iranians are rejecting direct talks with American representatives.
Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains the ultimate decision-maker, and therefore other government voices are not necessarily representative of official policy. The behavior of Iranian negotiators leaves little room for flexibility or compromise: the chief Iranian negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, has reiterated the requirement for assurances from the United States that it will not abandon a renewed nuclear deal. The U.S. administration cannot give in to such demands and cannot vouch for the future behavior of the next U.S. president. So, the prospects of a breakthrough in Vienna are slim.
Nothing has substantially changed in the Iranian negotiating position with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at the helm. However, Kani deserves special attention because of his close ties with Khamenei. Kani’s official title is Political Deputy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He was deputy secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council from 2007 to 2013. Yet his pedigree bears much more significance than his formal title.
He is notorious for his scathing criticism of the nuclear negotiations. His father, Muhammad Bagher Bagheri Kani, was previously a member of the Assembly of Experts (the body which appoints the Supreme Leader) and his brother Mesbah al-Hoda Bagheri is married to Khamenei’s daughter.
Kani does not speak English, and his appointment to head the talks is telling. He reports directly to Khamenei as he does not fully trust professional diplomats. In Iran, informal ties are always more important than formal appointments. Kani’s position illustrates that the alleged ideological rivalry between the moderates, reformists and hardliners is of little importance. There is only one person in Iran who will seal the fate of the talks: Khamenei.
Even though the Iranian regime is rushing toward the nuclear threshold, stepping up uranium enrichment, achieving a nuclear weapon is still far off. The regime uses uranium enrichment as leverage to wrest concessions from the European Union and the United States.
Achieving nuclear capability requires meeting specific technical objectives, such as developing an explosive device with a nuclear warhead, which Iran has yet to construct, according to publicly available information. Next, a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear payload must be developed. Furthermore, nuclear capability is demonstrated by carrying out a nuclear test. Yet Iran is still not near reaching this stage.
Carrying out nuclear tests would immediately discredit all the Iranian claims that their nuclear program is peaceful. At the same time, Iran does not have the capability to use mathematical models and supercomputers to simulate a nuclear test. This is a technical problem Iran seeks to overcome; if not stopped now, it will become more difficult to stop its nuclear program later.
Iran’s domestic woes
Meanwhile, time is not working in favor of the regime, as the socio-economic situation in Iran continues to deteriorate. Raisi’s government has not developed a coherent policy to ease the hardships being suffered by the Iranian people. Iran is suffering from scarcity and mismanagement of water resources. Water cuts and the drying up of the Zayandeh Rud river sparked large-scale protests by farmers in Isfahan province.
The law enforcement organs employed to quell the protests included Basijin and Afghan Fatemiyoun fighters that fired tear gas and live ammunition at protesters. At least 200 people were arrested.
Although the regime has put down the protests, nothing rules out their resumption in other Iranian cities and on other issues. In principle, socio-economic protest is permitted in Iran, yet each protest risks turning against the regime. People chant slogans like “Down with the dictator” in many demonstrations.
The protest similar to the one in Isfahan took place in Khuzestan in the summer, also due to water problems. The hardships are only growing, and the regime has no means of resolving them. The government is not becoming stronger but weaker. As a result, it grows increasingly intransigent and relies more and more on brutal suppression.
Though the lifting of sanctions is indispensable for Iran’s economy, it will not substantially improve the population’s living conditions. On the contrary, as the socio-economic situation continues to deteriorate, the regime will be dedicating more resources to control the population.
The regime is in a difficult position, since any improvement hinges on reforms that the government cannot afford. Reforms would inevitably lead to some ideological and legal changes, which would undermine the ideological tenets of the regime and its political survival. Khamenei sticks firmly to the fundamentals of Khomeinist ideology; therefore, no major changes are likely except for short-term tactical modifications.
Conclusions for Israeli policy
Israeli and foreign speculations about strikes on Iran’s nuclear installations are counter-productive. It creates an unnecessary fixation on the idea that an Israeli attack is the only viable option to forestall the imminent nuclear threat. Even worse, the obsession with bombing casts Israel as an aggressor and confines the strategic debate to only one issue, which is whether such an attack is technically possible, and whether it would end Iran’s nuclear program.
Israel must also refrain from creating an impression that Israeli leadership is attempting to pull the United States into military conflict with Iran or intentionally derail American efforts to reach an agreement. Such an impression will provide ammunition to anti-Israeli circles in the United States.
The presentation of the Iranian threat as a global threat is counterproductive, not only because it is factually untrue but because it signals Israeli fear and weakness. If this or another threat is no less than a new Hitler, there is no more room for debate; one must immediately eliminate the threat.
Iran’s military capabilities, such as its missiles and armed proxies, should not obfuscate the fact that the regime works hard to conceal its fragility and backwardness. Militarily, Iran is a paper tiger.
Instead of whipping up the sentiment of a looming catastrophe, Israel’s leaders should better clarify that it will hold the Iranian regime responsible for any attack against its citizens. No regime officials or assets will be safe from an Israeli response. That by threatening Israel, the regime plays with fire.
However, the messages to the Iranian regime should be nuanced and conveyed through various channels, depending on their goal. For example, messages aiming to deter the regime from concrete actions against Israel must be calm and discrete to maintain their credibility. So, the best way is to talk less and do more.
Israel must redouble its efforts to reach out to the Iranian people suffering under the yoke of Islamist tyranny. The dispute is not between the peoples of Israel and Iran. It was Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia, who permitted the Jews to return to the land of Israel. Moreover, Iran and Israel were allies against pan-Arab attempts to unite the Arab world.
Capt. (res.) Alexander Grinberg is a member of the IDF Military Intelligence research department. He holds degrees in Middle East and Islamic studies, and Arab language and literature, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is currently a doctoral student at Tel Aviv University, focusing on Iranian history.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.