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Israel pleased with US pivot to pressure in Iran nuclear talks

Pessimism and pressure are the buzz in Vienna, but the Iran nuclear talks still have a pulse.
Iran nuclear

US ramps up sanctions pressure on Iran…

Talks among the parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal) resumed in Vienna on December 9, after a six-day pause, with low expectations, as we report here and here.

As negotiators reconvene, the Biden administration is ramping up enforcement of sanctions on Iran, sending a high-level delegation to the UAE to warn banks and companies there that Washington has “visibility on transactions that are not compliant with sanctions," and "that those banks and firms face extreme risk if this continues.” 

Next stops by US officials to convey this tougher line on sanctions compliance could include Malaysia, Turkey and China, Iran’s leading trade partner, as the Wall Street Journal reports here.

Background

The Biden Administration's position is "compliance for compliance": economic sanctions relief for Iran in return for Iran’s compliance with constraints on its nuclear program, enforced by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to assure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon. 

US President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 and re-imposed and added new sanctions on Iran, which affected Iran’s ability to export oil and engage in international trade and finance, hurting the economy. Iran responded by accelerating its production of highly enriched uranium (HEU), required to produce a nuclear weapon, and reducing compliance with the IAEA.

Iran argues the burden is on the United States to lift sanctions unilaterally, as it is the party which stepped away from the deal.

There were six rounds of talks among the JCPOA parties in Vienna between April and June 2021. A seventh round of talks began on November 29 and paused on December 3, amid recriminations between the West and Iran about the intentions of the other.

Gantz, Austin discuss "other options" if nuclear talks fail

Following his meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that the Biden administration is “prepared to turn to other options” to halt Tehran’s nuclear program if diplomatic talks fail to do so, as Jared Szuba reports here.

The US has been careful about explicit military threats toward Iran, but that may be changing. Prior to the Gantz visit, Reuters reported that Gantz and Austin planned to discuss joint military exercises in preparation for a possible future attack. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby neither confirmed nor denied the report, saying “We routinely conduct exercises and training with our Israeli counterparts.”

Ben Caspit has the scoop here on how the Gantz visit and the shift to increased sanctions pressure and hints of a credible military option are a vindication for Gantz and the Israeli coalition government, which has sought, delicately and in the spirit of partnership, to remove the "dark shadow" of differences over Iran policy in US-Israel relations.

Iran’s economy needs sanctions relief

Iran still has compelling economic reasons to return to the JCPOA. In a detailed assessment of Iran President Ebrahim Raisi’s economic roadmap, Bijan Khajehpour concludes that "Securing sanctions relief in the Vienna talks would allow the Iranian government to achieve a number of its economic goals. At a minimum, access to Iran’s frozen funds on international accounts will improve the country’s financial position."

In his inaugural remarks as president before the Iran Consultative Assembly (the parliament or majles) on August 3, Raisi said that "Sanctions against Iran must be lifted, and we will support any diplomatic plan that achieves this goal."

As we wrote here in August, "there are four reasons why Raisi may consider closing on the nuclear deal negotiations: The Iranian economy needs relief from US oil and financial sanctions, especially because of the COVID-19 pandemic; the JCPOA was popular, and Raisi’s victory as president was marked by voter apathy and the lowest turnout ever for an Iranian presidential election; Raisi did not oppose the JCPOA during his presidential campaign; Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in his 'final report' on the JCPOA, wrote that he leaves with a 'framework for a possible deal' in place."

Our take: Watch the UAE….

The UAE is providing a regional complement, and channel, for the nuclear talks. US regional partners were left out of the JCPOA diplomacy in 2015. Not this time. Prior to the resumption of the Vienna talks on Nov. 29, the US sent a high-powered official delegation led by Austin and including US Iran Envoy Rob Malley and White House Middle East Coordinator Brent McGurk to the IISS Manama Dialogue for a meeting with senior Gulf officials to show a unified US-GCC front in approaching the nuclear negotiations. Three days later, on Nov. 24, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, made a quick visit to Abu Dhabi

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed on Dec. 5, two days after the Dec. 3 pause in the nuclear talks, about "important regional matters."

The next day, Dec. 6, UAE National Security Adviser Tahnoon Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan visited Tehran, where he met with Raisi and other top officials. Ali Hashem reports that "a source who’s familiar with the UAE-Iran lines of connection told Al-Monitor that these visits are linked to the nuclear talks."

Hashem adds that the UAE and Iran have been discussing how Abu Dhabi could help in coordinating and implementing the easing of sanctions on Iran, including transfers of money and assets, in coordination with the United States, if there is an agreement between Tehran and the world powers on the JCPOA.

Dr. Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to UAE President Sheikh Khalifa, said on Dec. 9, “We are hoping that process [the nuclear talks] will also lead to some sort of agreement on a dialogue that involves more countries and that track in itself will also help in cementing this vision that we [the UAE] are trying to propagate of stability and prosperity in the region.” He added, "I don't see further sanctions as a solution.... There are already enough sanctions on Iran," as Joyce Karam reports for The National.

…and the experts

While the US and its European partners have dismissed Iran’s positions in the latest nuclear talks, the expert/technical committees for the JCPOA parties have kept talking and exchanging papers on lifting sanctions in return for Iran’s compliance with the IAEA. Amwaj has the scoop here on the committees, and here on why Iran is upbeat on the talks.

As we wrote here, Iran is also looking for a sign that the US has so far been reluctant to give, rejecting talk of an interim agreement. Iran Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said last week that “there must be a ‎sign proving that they [the West] were determined and serious and that they had to make a ‎move to demonstrate their goodwill; for instance, by releasing $10 billion of Iran’s ‎frozen assets.” The US and its EU partners, however, are unlikely to take any step until Iran returns to compliance with the JCPOA’s constraints and safeguards on its nuclear program.

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