Iran’s hard bargaining tactics raise the stakes at Vienna nuclear negotiations

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Some experts fear that a return to the JCPOA could end up offering Iran an eventual pathway toward developing nuclear weapons. (AFP)
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Updated 29 May 2021

Iran’s hard bargaining tactics raise the stakes at Vienna nuclear negotiations

  • Escalation of nuclear activity and other moves seen as part of strategy to get US sanctions removed
  • Experts warn that a return to 2015 deal could give Iran a pathway toward developing atomic weapons

WASHINGTON, DC: The ongoing parley in Vienna between Iran and five signatories of the 2015 nuclear accord has begun to look like the proverbial game of chicken. The hawk — Tehran — has no pressing reason to yield to the dove’s demand that it abide by the limits set by the deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Being in the role of the hawk, however, does have a downside for Iran: It runs the risk of overplaying its hand and ending up with nothing to show for its single-minded pursuit of getting the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration removed, analysts say.

Likewise, it may make sense for Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf to voice his opposition to further renewal of the deal allowing inspection of Iran’s nuclear sites, but there is no proof so far that such bargaining tactics are working.

That said, Tehran must be pleased to hear the warning just sounded by Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that Iran’s uranium enrichment program is “very concerning” as the radioactive metal used to power nuclear reactors is being processed to purity levels that “only countries making bombs are reaching.”

“Iran often plays hardball in negotiations, and I suspect that it’s testing the limits to see what it can get away with,” Matt Kroenig, a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, told Arab News.

“In the end, however, I suspect we’ll see a return to the nuclear deal with the terms as formulated in 2015. Iran needs the sanctions relief, and the Biden administration wants (what it will portray back home as) an early diplomatic victory.”

But some experts fear that a return to the JCPOA — from which the US unilaterally pulled out in May 2019 — could end up offering Iran an eventual pathway toward developing nuclear weapons. Additionally, they say, if Iran is allowed to continue to violate IAEA safeguards, a dangerous precedent would be set.

“Tehran could be overplaying its hand regarding an issue that Washington and its European allies view as separate from the JCPOA — the IAEA’s ongoing safeguards investigation,” Andrea Stricker, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told Arab News.

“Iran has extorted the IAEA in three key ways since February. First, Tehran forced the agency into a terrible position of negotiating a bridge monitoring agreement, something it should never do with any state.

Iran’s hardline stance on IAEA inspections have been accompanied by continuous collaboration with regional militant groups, say experts. (AFP)

“As members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, states sign up to an IAEA comprehensive safeguards agreement and can add an additional protocol, but they don’t get to pick and choose which elements of those agreements they’ll comply with. By letting Iran do this, the IAEA set a very dangerous precedent for other proliferant states.”

One of the JCPOA’s more controversial conditions was to halt any further public revelations and inspections of Iran’s military research and tests related to nuclear weapons. Six years later, there is a sense that the revelations by a 2018 Israeli spy agency raid — which yielded tons of classified Iranian documents detailing various past covert nuclear weapons work — should prompt a comprehensive IAEA investigation into the military dimensions of Tehran’s nuclear program.

“There’s a fundamental incompatibility with how the JCPOA was used from 2015 to 2018 to shelve the IAEA’s investigation, and the fact that new information about Iran’s nuclear weapons activities has since come to light,” Stricker said.

“This underscores that the IAEA can’t perfunctorily close an open safeguards investigation. It must first methodically determine whether Iran’s nuclear program has military dimensions and seek to ensure any such activities have ended.

“From 2002 until 2015, the IAEA investigated the possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program. However, the JCPOA and UN Security Council Resolution 2231 pushed the IAEA into another devastating compromise: Closing its investigation and issuing an incomplete, final report.”

One of the JCPOA’s more controversial conditions was to halt any further public revelations and inspections of Iran’s military research and tests related to nuclear weapons. (AFP)

Jason Brodsky, a Middle East analyst and senior editor at Iran International, says Tehran has yet to be held accountable by the P4+1 — the UK, France, Russia and China plus Germany — for its uranium-enrichment escalation and stockpiling because of their determination to preserve the JCPOA, so it may have calculated that resistance will produce even more concessions.

“It’s worth noting that the international community merely issued strongly worded demarches while continuing to negotiate following Iran’s announcement that it was enriching uranium up to 60 percent in April,” he told Arab News.

“However, if Iran adopts such a stance on the IAEA monitoring agreement, it risks further isolating itself.”

While the general consensus of analysts is that Tehran’s hard line is aimed at extracting concessions from the US and the remaining JCPOA signatories while sacrificing little in return, an unfolding power struggle in the run-up to Iran’s presidential elections in June may also be a contributing factor.

“Granted, it’s the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who makes the final decision on such matters, but the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) does have a role to play. And the SNSC’s internal dynamics have changed since the original nuclear deal was signed in 2015,” Brodsky said.

“President Hassan Rouhani faces competition from Ghalibaf and Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, both of whom joined the SNSC after the JCPOA came into being. What has further complicated matters is Raisi’s decision to run for president. This is in part why we see the mixed messages from Tehran over the IAEA monitoring agreement.”

Advocacy groups opposed to the 2015 nuclear accord have also warned that a new deal would be incomplete if it does not address Iran’s links with a number of designated terror groups and its hosting of Al-Qaeda leaders.

Some experts fear that a return to the JCPOA could end up offering Iran an eventual pathway toward developing nuclear weapons. (AFP)

Bryan E. Leib, executive director of Iranian Americans for Liberty, is blunt in his assessment of the Vienna negotiations. “The Biden administration is playing a dangerous game with the world’s most notorious state sponsor of terrorism that ultimately puts American allies and American troops in the region in harm’s way against the regime’s aggression,” he said.

Leib’s concerns are shared by many former Trump administration officials who enforced the “maximum pressure” campaign that revived and expanded sanctions on Iran’s nuclear research and development network, and on terror-linked individuals and organizations. Their worry is that Washington’s negotiation strategy would not only leave the US less secure but endanger the Middle East as well.

They argue that Iran’s hardline stance on IAEA inspections, its push for sanctions relief and its ramping up of its nuclear activity have been accompanied by continuous collaboration with regional militant groups.

“Because of its (the Biden administration’s) eagerness to throw away the hard-won leverage and make unprecedented concessions to the Iranian regime, I do think Iran feels it holds all the cards when it comes to the nuclear negotiations,” Simone Ledeen, a former Trump Pentagon official, told Arab News.

“In fact, in early May an unnamed senior administration official told reporters that ‘success or failure now depends on Iran.’ It’s the most stark and troubling indication that the US administration remains untroubled by the many signals that Iran will make no concessions.”


Ledeen’s opinion is seconded by Len Khodorkovsky, a former senior State Department official, who said: “The Biden administration’s astonishing generosity in surrendering its leverage in Vienna has undoubtedly motivated the Iranian regime to push the envelope. The big concern is that the Biden administration, like the Obama administration, is willing to sacrifice everything at the altar of a deal, even a bad deal that harms US national security and that of our regional allies.”

In the final analysis, Tehran is still no closer to achieving its goal of getting President Joe Biden to find a way back into the JCPOA than when he officially entered the White House in January. Indeed, at its current stated pace of uranium enrichment, Iran could very well end up with the wherewithal for exploding a nuclear device, but not the sanctions relief it desperately craves.

On the other hand, as IAEA chief Grossi diplomatically pointed out in the interview he gave to Financial Times, “with a program with the degree of ambition, sophistication that Iran has, you need a very robust, very strong verification system … otherwise it becomes very fragile.”

Preventing Iran from gaining the capability to build nuclear weapons will require, at a minimum, stringent measures backed by strict monitoring of all of Iran’s underground facilities, including the ones it has presumably not disclosed.

Twitter: @OS26


Amnesty accuses Iran’s newly-elected president of ‘crimes against humanity’

Updated 16 min 46 sec ago

Amnesty accuses Iran’s newly-elected president of ‘crimes against humanity’

DUBAI: Amnesty International released a report Saturday saying that Iran’s newly elected leader Ebrahim Raisi is involved in crimes against humanity, including murder, torture and forced disappearances.

The report, which came out a few hours after Raisi was named the winner of the Islamic republic’s presidential election, denounces his rise to presidency instead of undergoing investigation.

Citing Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard, the report said: “Ebrahim Raisi has risen to the presidency instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance and torture, is a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran.”

“In 2018, our organization documented how Ebrahim Raisi had been a member of the ‘death commission’ which forcibly disappeared and extrajudicially executed in secret thousands of political dissidents in Evin and Gohardasht prisons near Tehran in 1988. The circumstances surrounding the fate of the victims and the whereabouts of their bodies are, to this day, systematically concealed by the Iranian authorities, amounting to ongoing crimes against humanity.”

The report also said: “‘As Head of the Iranian Judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi has presided over a spiralling crackdown on human rights which has seen hundreds of peaceful dissidents, human rights defenders and members of persecuted minority groups arbitrarily detained.

Dressed in a black turban and cleric’s coat, Raisi casts himself as an austere and pious figure and an corruption-fighting champion of the poor.

Critics charge the election was skewed in his favor as strong rivals were disqualified, but to his loyal supporters he is Iran’s best hope for standing up to the West and bringing relief from a deep economic crisis.

Raisi is not renowned for great charisma but, as head of the judiciary, has driven a popular campaign to prosecute corrupt officials.

Raisi is set to take over from moderate Hassan Rouhani in August.

(With AFP)

Battle for the Nile: How Egypt will be impacted by Ethiopia’s filling of GERD reservoir

Updated 19 June 2021

Battle for the Nile: How Egypt will be impacted by Ethiopia’s filling of GERD reservoir

  • For 10 years Ethiopia has failed to reach an agreement with Egypt and Sudan on how quickly the reservoir should be filled
  • On the eve of the summer rains on the Ethiopian Highlands, the dam is all but complete and filling is about to begin

LONDON: In the decade since Ethiopia announced it was going to build Africa’s biggest hydropower dam on the Blue Nile, the source of the bulk of Egypt’s water, the prospect has loomed over Egyptians as an existential threat.

For 10 years Ethiopia has failed to reach an agreement with Egypt and Sudan, its two downstream neighbors, on how quickly its vast reservoir should be filled, and how the electricity-generating Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be operated in the years to come. Now, on the eve of the anticipated annual summer rains that fall on the Ethiopian Highlands, the dam is all but complete and filling is about to begin in earnest.

DEEP DIVE: For a longer, interactive version of this story:

Ultraconservative cleric Raisi wins Iran presidential vote

Updated 19 June 2021

Ultraconservative cleric Raisi wins Iran presidential vote

  • Hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi was seen as all but certain to emerge victorious
  • Former populist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad joined those who said they would not cast their ballot

TEHRAN: Congratulations poured in for Iranian ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi on Saturday for winning presidential elections even before official results were announced.
Iran’s outgoing moderate President Hassan Rouhani said his successor had been elected in the previous day’s vote, without naming the widely expected winner, Raisi.
“I congratulate the people on their choice,” said Rouhani. “My official congratulations will come later, but we know who got enough votes in this election and who is elected today by the people.”
The other two ultraconservative candidates – Mohsen Rezai and Amirhossein Ghazizadeh-Hashemi – explicitly congratulated Raisi.
“I congratulate ... Raisi, elected by the nation,” Ghazizadeh-Hashemi said, quoted by Iranian media.
And Rezai tweeted that he hoped Raisi could build “a strong and popular government to solve the country’s problems”.
The only reformist in the race, former central bank governor Abdolnasser Hemmati, also tweeted his congratulations to Raisi.
Raisi, 60, would take over from moderate Rouhani at a time the Islamic republic is seeking to salvage its tattered nuclear deal with major powers and free itself from punishing US sanctions that have driven a painful economic downturn.
Raisi, the head of the judiciary whose black turban signifies direct descent from Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, is seen as close to the 81-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate political power in Iran.
The moderate candidate in Iran’s presidential election has conceded he lost to the country’s hard-line judiciary chief.
Former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati wrote on Instagram to judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi early Saturday.
Hemmati wrote: “I hope your administration provides causes for pride for the Islamic Republic of Iran, improves the economy and life with comfort and welfare for the great nation of Iran.”
Voting on Friday was extended by two hours past the original midnight deadline amid fears of a low turnout of 50 percent or less.
Many voters chose to stay away after the field of some 600 hopefuls was winnowed down to seven candidates, all men, excluding an ex-president and a former parliament speaker.
Three of the vetted candidates dropped out of the race two days before Friday’s election, and two of them threw their support behind Raisi.
Former populist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of those who were disqualified by the powerful 12-member Guardian Council of clerics and jurists, joined those who said they would not cast their ballot.
Raisi’s only rival from the reformist camp was the low-profile former central bank chief Abdolnaser Hemmati, 65, who had polled in the low single digits before the election.
Iran’s electorate, of now almost 60 million eligible voters, has delivered surprise results before, observers warn. If no clear winner emerges, a runoff will be held next Friday.
On election day, pictures of often flag-waving voters in the country of 83 million dominated state TV coverage, but away from the polling stations some voiced anger at what they saw as a stage-managed election.
“Whether I vote or not, someone has already been elected,” scoffed Tehran shopkeeper Saeed Zareie. “They organize the elections for the media.”
Enthusiasm has been dampened further by the economic malaise of spiralling inflation and job losses, and the pandemic that proved more deadly in Iran than anywhere else in the region, killing more than 80,000 people by the official count.
Among those who lined up to vote at schools, mosques and community centers, many said they supported Raisi, who has promised to fight corruption, help the poor and build millions of flats for low-income families.
A nurse named Sahebiyan said she backed the frontrunner for his anti-graft credentials and on hopes he would “move the country forward... and save the people from economic, cultural and social deprivation.”
Raisi has been named in Iranian media as a possible successor to Khamenei.
To opposition and human rights groups, his name is linked to the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988. The US government has sanctioned him over the purge, in which Raisi has denied playing a part.
Ultimate power in Iran, since its 1979 revolution toppled the US-backed monarchy, rests with the supreme leader, but the president wields major influence in fields from industrial policy to foreign affairs.
Rouhani, 72, leaves office in August after serving the maximum two consecutive four-year-terms allowed under the constitution.
His landmark achievement was the 2015 deal with world powers under which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.
But high hopes for greater prosperity were crushed in 2018 when then-US president Donald Trump withdrew from the accord and launched a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against Iran.
While Iran has always denied seeking a nuclear weapon, Trump charged it is still planning to build the bomb and destabilising the Middle East through armed proxy groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
As old and new US sanctions hit Iran, trade dried up and foreign companies bolted. The economy nosedived and spiralling prices fueled repeated bouts of social unrest which were put down by security forces.
Iran’s ultraconservative camp — which deeply distrusts the United States, labelled the “Great Satan” or the “Global Arrogance” in the Islamic republic — attacked Rouhani over the failing deal.
Despite this, there is broad agreement among all the candidates including Raisi that Iran must seek an end to the US sanctions in ongoing talks in Vienna aiming to revive the nuclear accord

EU’s Borrell plans Beirut talks as economic crisis fears deepen

Updated 19 June 2021

EU’s Borrell plans Beirut talks as economic crisis fears deepen

  • Lebanon fuel crunch inspires demonstrations at gas stations and supermarkets
  • Rocket-propelled grenades found in Beirut rubbish

BEIRUT: Josep Borrell, the high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy and vice-president of the European Commission, is expected to start a round of talks with Lebanese officials in Beirut on Saturday.

This comes days ahead of a meeting of EU officials in Brussels, called by France, to discuss imposing sanctions on Lebanese officials accused of corruption and political obstruction.

Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, director general of the General Security, highlighted “Russia’s constant will to stand by Lebanon and support it on the economic and security levels.”

He made his comments following talks with Russian officials.

Ibrahim added: “There should be a government, regardless of its form, in order to find solutions to all problems in Lebanon.”

He is a prominent figure in Lebanon who often conducts foreign negotiations.

Meanwhile, the living crisis is worsening, leading to armed clashes.

People are still waiting for long hours to fill up on gasoline amid shortages of fuel, which is subsidized by the state. The subsidy is expected to be lifted soon.

But this is dependent on the ration card for needy people, which is still being debated by parliamentary committees.

The fuel crisis sparked a clash on Friday in front of a gas station in Tripoli, which led to a shooting, with no casualties.

Also in Tripoli, a clash in front of a supermarket led to exchanging shots, causing two injuries.

The city has the biggest percentage of struggling Lebanese, who were impoverished further due to the collapse of the currency.

For the second consecutive day, employees of the public sector stuck to their strike which was called for by the Public Administration Employees Association in protest against the collapse of their purchasing power and the deterioration of economic and living conditions.

Contacts and consultations related to forming the new government have stalled after the failure of the initiative of the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, but he has insisted that “it is still standing.”

Walid Jumblatt, president of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) said: “It is impossible for some officials to keep waiting while the country’s conditions are retreating.”

Jumblatt added: “It is time for a settlement away from personal calculations.”

In the past two days, Berri had joined Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri in accusing President Michel Aoun and his political party of trying to get the blocking third in the government, contrary to the constitution.

Meanwhile, Lebanese Internal Security forces announced that they “captured 16 RPG type rocket-propelled grenades, and five grenades of other types dumped in waste containers near the House of the Druze Community in Lebanon in Beirut.”

Internal Security also declared that the “old ammunition” was removed after being examined by its explosives experts.

The identity of the party which disposed of the ammunition remains unknown.

The Anti-Narcotics Division at the Lebanese Customs seized a large quantity of Captagon pills hidden in a container loaded with stones, destined to be smuggled to Saudi Arabia via the port of Beirut.

“Some people implicated in the operation were arrested,” declared the caretaker Minister of Interior Mohammed Fahmi.

Speaking at the Port of Beirut, he revealed that the shipment was destined for Jeddah.

EU sets out potential criteria for Lebanese sanctions — document

Updated 18 June 2021

EU sets out potential criteria for Lebanese sanctions — document

  • Led by France, the EU is seeking to ramp up pressure on Lebanon's squabbling politicians
  • Senior European official told Reuters Paris had set its sights on sanctioning powerful Christian politician Gebran Bassil

PARIS/BRUSSELS: Criteria for European Union sanctions being prepared for Lebanese politicians are likely to be corruption, obstructing efforts to form a government, financial mishandling and human rights abuses, according to a diplomatic note seen by Reuters.
Led by France, the EU is seeking to ramp up pressure on Lebanon’s squabbling politicians after 11 months of a crisis that has left Lebanon facing financial collapse, hyperinflation, electricity blackouts, and fuel and food shortages.
The bloc, which has been holding technical discussions on possible measures for the last month, has yet to decide on which approach to take, but foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is due in Lebanon this weekend and will report back to foreign ministers on Monday.
As many senior Lebanese politicians have homes, bank accounts and investments in the EU, and send their children to universities there, a withdrawal of that access could help focus minds.
Paris says it has already taken measures to restrict entry for some Lebanese officials it sees as blocking efforts to tackle the crisis, which is rooted in decades of state corruption and debt, although it has not named anybody publicly.
The EU first needs to set up a sanctions regime that could then see individuals hit by travel bans and asset freezes, although it may also decide to not list anybody immediately.
The note, which also outlines the strengths and weaknesses of taking such a measure, focuses on four criteria. It begins with obstructing the establishment of a government, the political process or the successful completion of the political transition and then turns to obstructing the implementation of urgent reforms needed to overcome the political, economic and social crisis.
Financial mishandling, which would target people, entities or bodies believed to be responsible for the mismanagement of public finances and the banking sector, is also a core criteria as is the violation of human rights as a result of the economic and social crisis.
“It might be argued that the lack of political responsibility of the leadership in Lebanon is at the core of a massive implosion of the economy,” the note reads, referring to the possible human rights criteria.
“This has led to significant suffering and has affected the human rights of the population in Lebanon.”
Such diplomatic notes are common in EU policymaking, circulated among EU diplomats and officials, although they are not made public.
The note also says an “exit strategy” proposing benchmarks for establishing whether the sanctions regime has served its purpose as well as for renewing or lifting individual designations should also be put in place.
How quickly sanctions could be imposed is still unclear, but with political divisions continuing to worsen, the bloc is likely to press ahead before the summer holiday period.
There are divisions among the 27 EU states over the wisdom of EU sanctions, but the bloc’s two main powers, France and Germany are in favor, which is likely to prove pivotal. A larger group of nations has yet to specify their approach.
Hungary has publicly denounced EU efforts to pressure Lebanese politicians.
A senior European official told Reuters Paris had set its sights on sanctioning powerful Christian politician Gebran Bassil, who is already under US sanctions.