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The nuclear talks in Vienna: Biden’s legacy at stake

The return to negotiations is a positive step but says nothing about Iran’s true intentions.

Negotiators meet in Vienna to discuss the  Iran nuclear deal, May 2021. Source: Enrique Mora/European External Action Service/Twitter.
Negotiators meet in Vienna to discuss the Iran nuclear deal, May 2021. Source: Enrique Mora/European External Action Service/Twitter.
Eytan Gilboa
Eytan Gilboa
Professor Eytan Gilboa is director of the Center for International Communication and a senior research associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. Currently, he is Israel Institute Visiting Professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ahead of the return to nuclear talks in Vienna, the Biden administration declared that the United States would not allow Iran to become a nuclear power and that the preferred way to achieve that goal was through a diplomatic solution. If negotiations fail, the United States has “other means” at its disposal, according to the administration, but unfortunately, it has not elaborated. These statements by the administration have hindered rather than encouraged efforts to block Iran’s race to the bomb.

Most of the shortcomings in strategy are reminiscent of those of the Obama administration. Thus, it is doubtful whether Biden and his senior officials have learned the necessary lessons and will do better in the current round of negotiations.

The first failure is procedural. It may seem less important than more concrete matters, but it is always crucial.

The negotiations in Vienna are being conducted in a format known as “proximity talks.” Iran has refused to negotiate directly with the Americans; they only meet with British, German and French representatives, who shuttle back and forth between U.S. and Iranian officials. This format is advantageous to Iran. Instead of forming one Western bloc united against Iran, the Europeans serve as mediators, giving the Iranians an opening to play off the divisions between the Americans and Europeans. Iran wants to squeeze concessions from the Western powers in exchange for direct talks with the Americans.

Since the talks began in April 2021, Iran has determined the schedule. Tehran decides when the talks are suspended and resumed. There was indeed a pause in negotiations due to the June presidential elections in Iran. The Biden administration estimated that they could be renewed after President-elect Ebrahim Raisi took office. Still, the Iranians did not rush, preferring to buy time to enrich more uranium to a 60 percent level, very close to military-grade. Only after U.S. officials warned that their patience was wearing thin and that the United States would not wait endlessly did the three European powers and Iran agree to resume the negotiations.

Early in his presidency, Biden and his senior foreign and defense officials talked about the need to reach a new nuclear deal with Iran that would be “stronger and longer” than the one signed in 2015. The Americans adopted a two-step strategy. In the first phase, sanctions imposed by the previous administration would be lifted in exchange for Iran’s return to the limitations imposed on its nuclear program in the 2015 agreement. In the second phase, negotiations on a new deal would extend the duration of the 2015 deal and address issues omitted from that agreement, including Iran’s ballistic-missile program; its military interventions in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Gaza; and its sponsorship of international terrorism.

This strategy was far-fetched from the outset, and today seems out of reach—Iran has announced that it will not even discuss issues beyond its nuclear program. So Biden is now signaling that he will settle just to return to the 2015 agreement.

Contrary to common belief, establishing the negotiating agenda is not simple, and usually takes up significant time during preliminary talks. Then, the parties decide the issues to be discussed, and in what order they will be discussed. During the previous round of talks, two working groups were formed. One dealt with lifting U.S. sanctions and the other with returning to the 2015 agreement. With this round, Iran seems to have hardened its stance, taking the position that the talks will be entirely focused on lifting all US sanctions, including those unrelated to the nuclear program, such as those imposed for human rights violations.

One of the primary deficiencies of the 2015 agreement was the lack of an effective international inspection regime of Iran’s nuclear facilities. The inspection clauses left room for Iran to outwit International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. Iran’s rulers have often stated that the country does not intend to develop nuclear weapons, and all the infrastructure it has been building is solely dedicated to peaceful purposes. Few policymakers in the United States and Europe believe them.

With good reason: there is sufficient evidence to claim that Iran has cheated and lied about the true purposes of its nuclear program. For years, the Iranians have concealed nuclear facilities and equipment. Iran’s nuclear archives—brought to Israel and unveiled in April 2018—prove that the Iranian goal has always been to attain nuclear weapons. If world powers would like to open a new page with Iran, it will require a detailed disclosure of the history of its nuclear program, something it has so far been unwilling to do.

However, with a credible military threat, stopping Iran from getting a nuclear capability, and reaching a good agreement, are possible.

Former President Barack Obama warned many times that “all options are on the table,” but it was clear that military action was not one of them. In light of the failed U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran concluded that Obama didn’t intend to use force. That assessment was reinforced after Obama set in 2012 a “red line” for Syrian President Bashar Assad, warning him that if he attacked his citizens again with chemical weapons, the United States would retaliate. In August 2013, Assad ignored this warning, but Obama did nothing.

In the recent strategic dialogue in Manama, Bahrain, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin criticized Iran. However, he reiterated the preference for a diplomatic solution. He said: “Our potential punch includes what our friends can contribute and what we have prepositioned and what we can rapidly flow in,” he said. “Our friends and foes both know that the United States can deploy overwhelming force at the time and place of our choosing,” he added. Here, too, Austin referred only to capability, not will. The United States has a vast military capability and can destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. The question lies in its willingness to use that force.

President Joe Biden has spoken about “other options” to be used if diplomacy fails, but many doubt he would order a military strike.

Recently, Iran attacked a U.S. base in Tanf on the Syrian-Iraqi border. The United States did not retaliate. According to officials quoted in The New York Times, the Iranians were trying to create a strategic equation whereby attacks on American targets serve as retaliation for Israeli strikes on Iranian bases in Syria. Instead of responding militarily against the pro-Iranian militias responsible for the attack in Tanf, the United States told Israel its attacks against Iran’s nuclear program were counterproductive, according to the Times. Such positions can only reinforce Tehran’s rigidity.

The return to negotiations is a positive step but says nothing about Iran’s true intentions. Countries often enter international negotiations with no intention of reaching an agreement. They have their own agendas. From Tehran’s perspective, the goals are lifting the sanctions and securing immunity from military attacks. Therefore, Biden’s strategy raises many questions. The withdrawal from the starting position of a more robust and longer agreement, and tolerating the Iranian conditions for negotiations, do not provide any leverage against Iran.

Given Iran’s strategy of buying time through months of negotiations as it proceeds forward towards a bomb means that the Biden administration’s position may erode even further.

Professor Eytan Gilboa is an expert on U.S.-Israel relations, international communication and public diplomacy. The founding head of both the School of Communication and the Center for International Communication at Bar-Ilan University, he has been a senior fellow at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. Gilboa received his MA and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard University, and has authored many books and articles. He has served as an adviser to the government of Israel and several foreign governments, and also as director of International Studies at the National Defense College, chair of the Foreign Service Selection Committee; member of the Committee on Higher Education of the City of Jerusalem; and chair of the Political Science and International Relations Committee, and the Communication Committee, at the National Science Foundation.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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