JERUSALEM – Can the historic 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers be restored? As Iran and six global powers gather in Vienna on Monday to discuss the torn treaty, the answer appears to be no.
Since then-US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, Iran has gone ahead with its nuclear program, making it impossible to turn back the clock. The election of a hardline leader in Iran, coupled with a US administration seen as weak in the region, has further reduced the chances of a success.
The outlook appears to be so dire that leading voices in Israel, which prompted Trump to withdraw from the deal, are now saying the move was a huge mistake.
Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yalon, who fiercely opposed the original deal, was one of the rare Israeli voices to argue against a withdrawal at the time. He now says the US retreat has become a “main mistake” in the region over the past decade.
A flawed deal, he told a security conference last week, “was probably better than allowing the Iranians to use the withdrawal as an excuse not to compromise and move the project forward.”
“Now they’re at the closest stage they’ve ever been to becoming a (nuclear) boundary state,” he said.
Here’s a closer look at the deal and what to expect this week:
Why did the original deal break?
The 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers – led by US President Barack Obama – was intended to prevent Iran from being able to build a nuclear bomb. It offered Iran economic sanctions relief in exchange for 10 to 15 years of sanctions on its nuclear activities. Iran says its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes.
Critics, led by then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, criticized the deal because the sanctions on Iran were temporary. He also complained that it did not address Iran’s non-nuclear military activity – such as its support for hostile terrorist groups and the development of long-range missiles.
When Trump backtracked on Netanyahu’s insistence, he promised a campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran. However, it seems that the approach is reversed. Iran’s government remains firmly in power, despite increased US sanctions, and the country has moved forward with nuclear research restricted by the original agreement.
Can’t the deal just be reinstated?
Iran began to exceed agreement limits after the US withdrawal, and now enriches small amounts of uranium to 60% purity – a small step up from the weapons-grade level of 90%. Iran also uses advanced centrifuges that were once banned by the deal, and its uranium stockpile now exceeds the limits of the deal.
Experts say that even if Iran is forced to give up its uranium reserves or halt its research, the expertise it has gained cannot be taken away.
What are the prospects for this week’s conversation?
In the short term, it doesn’t look encouraging. Moving forward in the talks, Iran’s staunch President, Ibrahim Raisi, has made maximum demands, including a call for the US to unfreeze US$10 billion in assets as an initial goodwill gesture.
The hard line can be an early gamble. European negotiators are confident a deal will be reached in the short to medium term.
But US officials do not appear optimistic. US President Joe Biden and his top advisers have held several meetings in recent weeks with key aides and negotiating partners to prepare for the potential failure of talks.
The Americans will not even be in the negotiating room due to the withdrawal of Trump. Instead, they will pass and work through intermediaries.
In an interview broadcast on Friday, chief US negotiator Rob Malle said the signals from Iran “are not particularly encouraging.”
Talking to NPR, he said that the US prefers a diplomatic solution. But if that is impossible, he said the US would respond accordingly. “The options that are at America’s disposal, you know, they are familiar to everyone,” he said.
Given America’s soft response to alleged Iranian military activity in the region, including attacks on civilian ships in the Persian Gulf and an attack on a US base in Syria, US military action does not appear to be a serious threat. The complicated withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan has further undermined American credibility in the region.
“I am very pessimistic,” said Yoel Guzansky, a former official in Israel’s prime minister’s office who is now a senior fellow at the National Institute for Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Iran shows patience, resilience, determination. I’m sorry to say that Americans don’t show that, and we don’t have a lot of time.”
What can Israel do?
Israel is not a party to the talks, but it has a large stake in the outcome.
It considers Iran its number 1 enemy and considers nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat. Israel is considered the only nuclear-armed state in the region, although it does not publicly acknowledge its own arsenal.
Netanyahu’s successor, Naftali Bennett, has been careful not to clash with Biden in public. But his position is similar to that of Netanyahu. He expressed hope that the talks would lead to a better settlement, but reiterated Israel’s longstanding threat to act unilaterally if necessary.
“We will maintain our freedom to act,” he said last week. On Sunday, he said Israel is “very upset” by what he sees as a desire by global powers to lift sanctions and restore “inadequate sanctions in the nuclear sector”. He said Israel has been conveying this message to all concerned.
Despite such threats, Israel may hesitate. Iran has spent the past decade dispersing its nuclear sites and hiding them deep underground. At the same time, Israel may be reluctant to sabotage a global diplomatic effort.
Is Iran raising its hand?
China and Russia, two important Iranian outlets for trade and parties to the deal, could be impatient with Tehran, especially if an unstable system of international nuclear oversight breaks down. Economic pressure continues to squeeze Iranians, who have seen their savings evaporate with the free-fall of the country’s currency.
If talks progress, the US could turn to new sanctions or military action. There is also the threat of military intervention by Israel.
“We’ll see in the coming days what exactly Iran’s stance will be,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week. “But we have also made it clear that this is not a process that can go on indefinitely.”
Associated Press writers Ellen Nickmeyer in Washington, John Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem and Lorne Cooke in Brussels contributed reporting.