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Iran-USA nuclear talks about a hair trigger

Perhaps the most harrowing irony of the months of negotiations to restore the 2015 Atomic Pact with Iran is that both Tehran and Washington are desperate to make it happen – but may not be able to do so in the end.

Why? One reason is growing suspicion: a poisonous suspicion on the part of the other side, which was heightened by the orchestrated election last week against Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner with a murderous past, who is supposed to replace moderate Hassan Rouhani as Iranian president in August. Although Raisi said he wanted to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 nuclear deal is called, he and the Iranian regime are now making impossible demands. Tehran, in particular, is now insisting on something that US President Joe Biden cannot deliver: a guarantee that no future US administration will pull out of the deal, as Biden's predecessor Donald Trump did.

Perhaps the most harrowing irony of the months of negotiations to restore the 2015 Atomic Pact with Iran is that both Tehran and Washington are desperate to make it happen – but may not be able to do so in the end.

Why? One reason is growing suspicion: a poisonous suspicion on the part of the other side, which was heightened by the orchestrated election last week against Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner with a murderous past, who is supposed to replace moderate Hassan Rouhani as Iranian president in August. Although Raisi said he wanted to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 nuclear deal is called, he and the Iranian regime are now making impossible demands. Tehran, in particular, is now insisting on something that US President Joe Biden cannot deliver: a guarantee that no future US administration will pull out of the deal, as Biden's predecessor Donald Trump did.

Another reason for the renewed skepticism is that so much has changed for both sides on site. Biden is unwilling to reverse all sanctions imposed by his Trump. And Tehran is so advanced in its technical development, especially its new, much faster IR-9 centrifuge that it is currently testing, that its "breakout time" for a bomb has shrunk considerably, which the JCPOA may already be debating.

"Both sides are aware that a restoration of the status quo ante is not completely possible," said Ali Vaez, head of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group and a former close associate of US chief negotiator Robert Malley. "Iran is unlikely to receive the same amount of sanctions relief as it did in 2015 and 2016, and the US is unlikely to be able to scale back all of Iran's nuclear armaments since Trump left the deal in 2018."

Nevertheless, both sides – and the European nations who brokered the talks in Vienna – could wish for a restoration of the pact in some form. Malley and the other negotiators plan to return to Vienna next week for what may be a seventh and final round of negotiations, and many technical compromises are already on the table.

"I think it is now clear what it looks like on both sides," said Vaez, who still put the chances of a deal at around 70 percent. "If the parties go back to Vienna with the necessary flexibility, it is quite possible to conclude them by mid / end of July."

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is believed to want to sign an agreement before Rouhani resigns. Hence, any public backlash due to a compromise deal harms the former president and not Raisi, Khamenei's likely anointed legacy as supreme leader.

However, if they fail to come to an agreement, it could destroy all hopes for the pact. If an agreement is not reached by August, the US team believes the 60-year-old Raisi will likely need a long time before he resumes talks. At this point, however, Iran's nuclear advances can no longer be constrained by the agreement, especially if the latest generation centrifuge, the IR-9, which is believed to be 50 times faster than the Iranian first generation centrifuge, goes online. Advanced centrifuges enable Iran to enrich more uranium to a higher purity in less time.

In other words, Iran may be on the verge of shortening its path to a bomb, right as the Biden administration is under great pressure from Capitol Hill to tighten the terms of the 2015 Pact – and istand Insist on a "longer and stronger" deal that includes the Iranian missile program and regional support for violent proxies like Hezbollah, Hamas and anti-US opponents. Militias in Iraq. Raisi insists that Iran's ballistic missiles and regional activities are "non-negotiable".

In addition, the extended inspection period negotiated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), during which Iran keeps the data from the UN nuclear inspections, runs on 24th December. This could also be fatal for the JCPOA.

All of this suggests that the two sides may be sailing into a diplomatic Scylla and Charybdis.

Another major sticking point has been Iran's insistence on lifting all sanctions Trump imposed as "poison pills" to ensure the 2015 deal can never be revived. This includes more than 700 sanctions imposed outside of the nuclear pact that aim to break the Iranian economy and humiliate its leadership, particularly key figures in Khamenei's office (and against Khamenei himself). The Biden team has indicated that it cannot eliminate all of these measures – possibly including sanctions imposed on Raisi for his involvement in the execution of thousands of dissidents in the late 1980s and another violent crackdown in 2009 by Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would likely be overturned as part of a return to the pact.

"I think all the sanctions are on the table, but I wouldn't say they will all be lifted," said a European diplomat, who disclosed some details of the talks on condition of anonymity. "The ball is now in the Iranian court, which they will accept."

Earlier this month, the Biden government preventively lifted sanctions against some Iranians who were involved in the oil trade through a “network of bogus companies and intermediaries”. The move was interpreted as an incentive for Tehran, but at the same time the government imposed additional sanctions on other Iranians who were accused of financially supporting the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The stress of sanctions against the Iranian economy is so great that Khamenei – who will make any final decision – may be ready to compromise on a new deal. Iran wants to release tens of billions of dollars of frozen assets, but that won't do much to heal the overall damage to the Iranian economy since Trump imposed hundreds of additional sanctions – including ruinous levies on Iran's central bank, National Iranian Oil Company and the National Iranian Tanker Company – supposedly for funding state sponsored terrorism. Zarif recently claimed the cumulative damage from Trump's sanctions is about $ 1 trillion, and Tehran wants "compensation" – though that figure is likely grossly exaggerated. As recently as last September, Rouhani himself put the damage at around $ 150 billion.

Another new placeholder is the establishment of a new hard-line administration in Israel, Iran's No. 1 enemy. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who like his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu loathes the 2015 deal, sent his military chief of staff Aviv Kochavi to Washington this week to warn the United States and European powers to "wake up" to the dangers. of a new compromise since Raisi's election. According to a statement by the Israel Defense Forces, Kochavi warned his US colleague, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, that a return to the Iranian nuclear deal would be "dangerous". After a Israeli news report, Bennett even lifted a Netanyahu ban on Israeli officials who speak publicly about the negotiations.

Bennett, who responds to Netanyahu's provocative suggestions that the new prime minister, a newcomer to the global scene, is not up to the task of dealing with international crises and managing relations with Washington, is said to be loyal to the tough line defender of Israel's security . Bennett is likely to sign any covert action against the Iranian nuclear program that crosses the table, and this could also disrupt negotiations in Vienna. In the past decade, several Iranian nuclear scientists have been murdered – allegedly by Israeli activists – and an Iranian military ship stationed in the Red Sea was recently damaged by an alleged suspect Israeli mine attack in the recent expansion of the Israel-Iran conflict.

"Now we're seeing this Gray Zone War spilling over to the seas," and it's likely to escalate, Suzanne Maloney, director of the Brookings Institution's foreign affairs program, said at a Wilson Center webinar Tuesday. The question then becomes how much influence Biden has on the new Israeli government.

Bennett's critics, like Netanyahu, say he will reject any pact with Iran, no matter what Tehran agrees to. "When our new prime minister says it's bad business, I think he doesn't even know the details," said Ami Ayalon, former director of Shin bed, Israel's Homeland Security Agency and former commandant of the Israeli Navy. Ayalon added that he believed "even a bad deal is better than no deal".

Despite all the obstacles, some experts believe for both sides, a return to some form of the 2015 agreement is far more desirable than a prolonged stalemate. The Iranian economy cannot stand the US sanctions without further political turmoil, and Washington knows that any kind of pact is more likely to hold Tehran back than nothing.

"I think there will be a deal because the alternatives are, frankly, a lot less attractive," said Vaez.

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