Hot take: US seeks united diplomatic front ahead of Iran nuclear talks
- Talks on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, resume on Nov. 29 in Vienna. The parties include Iran, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, along with the European Union. The United States, under former President Donald Trump, withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018. While the United States, having withdrawn, won’t be “in the room,” its delegation will be just outside the door.
- This will be the seventh round of talks this year and the first such meeting since June and since Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took office on Aug. 3. Former Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who served under former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, said he left the Raisi government a “framework for a possible deal.”
- The JCPOA, negotiated by the United States under former President Barack Obama, is included in UN Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015) — you can read the resolution and JCPOA here.
- US Iran Envoy Rob Malley said on Nov. 19 at the IISS Manama Dialogue that “time is running out" to negotiate a return to the JCPOA, and that US regional partners clearly support a return to the JCPOA. He added that US President Joe Biden will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Nov. 23 that the US position is a return to “mutual compliance" by Washington and Tehran to the JCPOA.
- Iran Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said in an interview this month that while Iran is returning to the Vienna talks, “There is no need for negotiations,” suggesting the United States should simply lift the sanctions imposed on Iran since May 2018.
- Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitors Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, told the IAEA Board of Governors on Nov. 24 that his meetings on Iran on Nov. 23 were “inconclusive” and the IAEA’s role has been “seriously undermined” by “Iran’s decision to stop the implementation of its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA.” An IAEA report in August 2021 noted that Iran was enriching uranium at 60%, well above the 3.67% cap in the JCPOA. Highly enriched uranium at 90% purity is required for nuclear weapons development.
- Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who has opposed any kind of deal with Iran, said, "We hope the world does not blink, but if it does, we do not intend to. … There may also be disagreements with the best of our friends. It would not be the first time. In any event, even if there is a return to the JCPOA, Israel obviously is not a party to the agreement and is not obligated by it. … We will maintain our freedom of action.”
Our take: a united front
- Watch US engagement with Russia and China, as Washington will look to close off, as best it can, an eastern off-ramp for Iran in the nuclear talks. All JCPOA parties, including Russia and China, share the US interest in preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
- A powerhouse US delegation to the IISS Manama Dialogue last week — US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, White House Middle East Coordinator Brett McGurk and Malley — included reassurances that the United States is not leaving the region. Worth noting that just days later, Ali Bagheri Kani, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, met in Dubai on Nov. 24 with UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Khalifa Shaheen and Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE president.
- Nonetheless, Ben Caspit reports that “the general sense in the Middle East, among the moderate Sunni axis and Israel, is one of abandonment. The way these states all see it, the only ones who can be relied on right now to stop Iran are the Israelis.”
- The United States is saying it won’t consider an “interim” step to break the diplomatic ice, but the idea is reportedly being discussed, according to Barak Ravid. What could such a step be? Amir-Abdollahian suggested this month the prospect of a goodwill gesture from the United States — “for instance, by releasing $10 billion of Iran’s frozen assets.” Price said on Nov. 23, “We have been very clear that we are not prepared to take unilateral steps solely for the benefit of greasing the wheel.”
- If there is a new or revised Iran deal, the US Congress may also have a chance to review and debate it under the oft-forgotten Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), as Stephen Rademaker explains here.
From our regional correspondents:
1. Turkish currency crisis felt in Idlib
Thanks to Turkey’s currency crisis, prices for fuel and food items, including bread, have spiked sharply, making living conditions even harder for Syrians living in Idlib province, Khaled al-Khateb reports from Syria.
Idlib, in northwest Syria, is the last stronghold of Syrian opposition and jihadist forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (Liberation of the Levant, or HTS), the jihadist group that governs most of Idlib, started using the Turkish lira last year.
HTS is designated as a terrorist group by both the United States and the UN Security Council.
Update: Mustafa Sonmez writes that "the consumer confidence index has plunged to its worst level since its introduction in 2004, although a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Ankara on Nov. 24 boosted the currency with discussions of up to $10 billion in UAE investment in Turkey.
2. Saudi, Syrian intel chiefs meet
The Arab states that severed ties with Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad are slowly opening the door to normalization with his regime.
Mohammad Hanafi has the details on the rare Nov. 13 meeting between the Saudi and Syrian intelligence chiefs in Cairo on the sidelines of the Arab Intelligence Forum.
The high-profile meeting came on the heels of Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s trip to Damascus, the first by an Emirati foreign minister since the war erupted a decade ago.
In another first, Jordanian King Abdullah took a phone call from Assad in October.
It remains to be seen whether the previously shunned Syria will be welcomed back into the Arab League, which will hold its next summit in Algeria in March.
3. Turkey’s Jews stream ‘The Club’
A new Netflix series set in 1950s Istanbul is making waves in the Turkish city of Izmir’s tiny Jewish community. “The Club” tells the story around Matilda, a fictional Jewish woman who shot her Muslim Turkish lover after he wrongly accused her family of evading Turkey’s wealth tax that targeted non-Muslims.
After her release from prison, Matilda finds a job at the avant-garde Club Istanbul as a laundress.
Nazlan Ertan writes that “for many Jewish people in Turkey, the series confronts past demons,” including the Turkish government’s “Citizen, Speak Turkish!” language campaign and the multiple pogroms that devastated the country’s Jewish towns.
4. Oman bets on logistics
As its crude oil reserves dwindle, Oman is hoping logistics can re-energize and diversify its oil-dependent economy.
If the sultanate leverages its location at the center of the world’s major shipping routes, Oman’s logistics sector could employ 300,000 people by 2040, Sebastian Castelier writes.
But standing in the way of Oman’s ambitions to be the Gulf’s entry point is the United Arab Emirates, whose port operator DP World moves nearly one in 10 of the world's containers.
The economic competition between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, however, could present an opening for Oman.
5. Egypt, Tanzania boost GERD cooperation
Egypt and Tanzania are deepening coordination over the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Cairo views as a threat to its Nile River water supply.
Earlier this month, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his Tanzanian counterpart, Samia Hassan, met to discuss the decade-old dispute over the megadam, which Addis Ababa has said it plans to fill.
Egypt is among Tanzania’s top economic partners and is currently building a hydropower dam in the East African country. “Egypt believes boosting its ties with Tanzania, a Nile Basin country, could thwart Ethiopian efforts to reconsider the distribution of Nile water shares,” Mohamed Saied says.
One Cool Thing: Gaza’s all-girl skate team
Young girls in the Gaza Strip are taking up skateboarding and, while they’re at it, shattering a stigma around women in sports.
Taghreed Ali reports on an all-girl roller skating and skateboarding team that trains every Friday morning at a graffiti-covered skate park in the impoverished Palestinian enclave.
Social norms have long prevented girls from joining the sport, and those who do want to skate often have trouble finding the proper equipment in Gaza’s stores.
Check out this video for more on Gaza's beginner boarders.
What We’re Listening To: Andrew interviews Amberin on her reporting from Syria
Amberin Zaman discusses her reporting in northeastern Syria and explains why we can't rule out the possibility of an eventual rapprochement between Erdogan and Assad over their shared fear of the Kurds. Check out the podcast here.