In the not-so-distant past, the United States and its European allies were seemingly a stone’s throw away from clinching a nuclear agreement with Iran after 16 months of arduous talks.
Western officials were downright giddy. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, the man responsible for shepherding the negotiations across the finish line, told reporters last month that he was hopeful a deal could be finalized in a matter of days. U.S. officials joined the chorus of optimism, with White House national security spokesman John Kirby observing “we’re closer now than we had been in … weeks and months” thanks to Tehran’s decision to drop extraneous demands.
What a difference a few weeks makes. The Americans and Europeans are no longer using phrases such as “cautiously optimistic” to describe things. The same European governments that once applauded Iran for at least working with them in a constructive manner are now seriously questioning whether Tehran has the willingness and capacity to take “yes” for an answer.
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On Sept. 12, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken put the onus squarely on Iran’s shoulders for yet again stalling the process. “What we’ve seen over the last week or so in Iran’s response to the proposal put forward by the European Union is clearly a step backward and makes prospects for an agreement in the near-term … unlikely,” Blinken assessed.
If this isn’t bleak enough, the normally patient Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is getting exceedingly frustrated with Iran’s utter lack of cooperation. Even before the Iranians removed some of the IAEA’s cameras from several nuclear facilities in June, the agency’s experts have been unable to evaluate the full extent of Tehran’s nuclear activities.
What the international community regards as deliberate nuclear brinkmanship, the Iranian government views as necessary leverage to push Washington into signing an agreement on its terms. And that leverage is only growing — according to the latest IAEA report, Iran possesses more than 55 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60%, enough fuel for a nuclear bomb if enriched to weapons-grade levels.
At this point, it’s increasingly obvious that the U.S. and Iran are talking past each other. While the Iranians are no longer insisting that Washington delist the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, they remain strongly opposed to reimplementing the 2015 nuclear deal (officially named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) until the IAEA drops its ongoing investigation on unexplained uranium traces found in facilities Tehran didn’t even bother to declare.
The IAEA, as well as the U.S. and the United Kingdom, France and Germany, have emphatically rejected this demand as the diplomatic version of gaslighting. If the Iranians want the investigation dropped, Western officials say, all they have to do is answer questions to the agency’s satisfaction.
Another major issue concerns economic relief. Spurned financially after then-President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal and reimposed broad-based sanctions on the Iranian economy, Tehran has no intention of reliving the experience. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has tasked his negotiators with pressing for a U.S. guarantee that any foreign entities conducting business inside Iran will be able to continue their operations in the event another U.S. president leaves the deal.
But there’s a big problem: President Joe Biden can’t bind his predecessor to such an arrangement any more than former President Barack Obama could have prevented Trump from shredding the deal and creating this mess in the first place. Even if Biden had the supermajority on Capitol Hill to formalize a renewed Iran nuclear deal as a treaty, the kind of support Biden could only dream about, a future president who despised the agreement could simply nullify the treaty by withdrawing participation. Practically speaking, the best the Biden administration can offer is a promise that U.S. sanctions relief will continue for as long as Biden or a Biden-esque successor is in office. Such a promise, however, is likely to be insufficient to the Iranians, who despite their apparent ignorance of the U.S. system of checks and balances nonetheless have a decent understanding of how controversial the 2015 deal is inside the Beltway.
Therefore, after nearly a year and a half of intense negotiations, the diplomatic process may be stuck at a point where the most the U.S. is willing to give still comes short of what Iran is able to accept. If this is indeed the case, then the entire affair is treading on the thinnest of ice. In a situation such as this, when both sides are impervious to more concessions and patience is all but exhausted, the only way the participants can reach the top of the summit is if one of them concludes that the benefits of clinching a good-enough deal are worth the costs of modifying (or dare I say, backing down) from their position.
Is there still a faint glimmer of hope the U.S. and Iran can upend the grim expectations of the pessimists, just as they forced the optimists to hold off on the Champagne toasts? Yes, there is. But for a negotiation that has proved to have as many ups and downs as the Goliath roller coaster at Six Flags Great America, confidently predicting the outcome would be a fool’s errand.
DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.