With talks in Vienna about to resume next week, America is weakening its demands and Iran is toughening up. Can further appeasement be far behind?
After months of leading American diplomats by the nose, Tehran finally agreed to return its diplomats to a Vienna hotel, where they’d negotiate a renewal of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The non-direct talks — Europeans will relay messages between American and Iranian diplomats seated in separate hotel rooms — are set to start November 29.
Washington this week floated a new idea: an interim agreement. Under that scenario, Iran would freeze its current nuclear advancements while a full return to the JCPOA would be negotiated — though in return for a freeze Iran would demand further easing of sanctions.
Before any of that, though, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of directors is scheduled to meet on Wednesday. IAEA’s director, Rafael Grossi, in his latest report listed numerous recent Iranian violations of both the JCPOA and the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty. Those include blocking inspectors’ access to various facilities and refusal to explain activities in undeclared sites.
Iran hawks on both sides of the Atlantic are demanding a tough censure resolution at the IAEA board. Yet, as such a rebuke could undermine success in next Monday’s Vienna talks, diplomats doubt it will pass. And therein lies the paradox that has undermined the nuclear deal from the start.
The JCPOA was sold to Americans as a way to block all paths to an Iranian nuclear bomb. At the same time, President Obama’s camarilla portrayed opponents of the deal as warmongers. To save us from war, which in short order would involve a nuclear-armed Iran, they argued that the deal must be preserved at all cost — even if the mullahs violate it.
The Islamic Republic’s violations of the JCPOA started soon after it agreed on the pact with America and its five diplomatic partners. As Moscow, Beijing, Paris, London, Berlin, and Washington eased sanctions, Tehran beefed up secret nuclear facilities, banned inspectors from entering military bases, and tested ballistic missiles even though that activity was discouraged by the deal.
As violations increased, the JCPOA parties deemed them too insignificant to return to a sanction regime. The IAEA director at the time, Yukiya Amano, deliberately underplayed inspection interference. Members of the United Nations Security Council argued those and other Iranian violations do not amount to a material breach of the nuke deal.
While sanctions were removed, Iran’s newfound cash was used for regional aggression, inflaming wars in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Gaza, and elsewhere. Iran’s non-nuclear aggression wasn’t covered by the JCPOA, but a ban on its arms exports remained in effect in the first JCPOA years. Nevertheless, it was overlooked for fear that enforcement would unravel the pact.
That logic — we can’t enforce restrictions lest they threaten the deal — was finally undone by President Trump. In 2018, he walked out on the deal. Harsh American sanctions were reimported, with an impetus from Congress, while non-American companies were told they could conduct business in America or Iran, but not both.
Mr. Trump then went to the United Nations Security Council and invoked the opt-out clause in the resolution that gave the JCPOA its veneer of legality. That clause, known as “snapback,” was added to the Council resolution to allow Washington to pretend America could unilaterally undo the deal at any time, and do so without consent of the other parties.
Yet Council members simply ignored Washington’s snapback and its call to reimpose internationally-mandated sanctions. As Washington walked out on the JCPOA, they argued, it no longer could snap it back. Once again, preserving the deal proved more important to America’s JCPOA partners than enforcing its provisions.
Soon after President Biden entered office, vowing a return to the JCPOA, Iran amped up its nuclear activity. Violating all restrictions, it now enriches uranium to near-bomb levels. A new generation of centrifuges are spinning for a fast breakout time. Nuclear weaponization capabilities are tested.
The logic that has governed Iran diplomacy all along is back, dictating a fast return to the 2015 deal as written. Never mind that some JCPOA provisions have already expired, others will dissipate in a year, and in a decade all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program will be removed. Early promises by administration officials to seek “longer and stronger” agreement with Iran have disappeared from Washington’s talking points.
Instead, America now seeks a shorter and weaker interim agreement. As a tough IAEA rebuke would threaten the upcoming Vienna talks, a tough rebuke is unlikely. After all, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the deal is the message — appeasement 101.
Image: Detail of official photograph of IAEA’s director, Rafael Grossi.