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Iran nuclear deal talks likely to drag on

By Ma Xiaolin | China Daily | Updated: 2021-11-30 07:24


Following his meeting with Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian tweeted on Nov 25 that an agreement between Teheran and the global nuclear watchdog is possible. But he did not say whether Teheran will agree with the United States to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, informally known as the Iran nuclear deal.

There are growing signs that Iran has continued its nuclear program on a low level while maintaining transparency, but the negotiations on reviving the Iran nuclear deal seem to have become a marathon without an end in sight.

A new round of talks opened on Monday with Teheran showing a positive attitude, and China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and Germany keen on guiding the talks toward a positive conclusion. The previous six rounds of talks made certain achievements, laying a foundation for the continuation of the process. But none seems optimistic about the revival of the nuclear deal, especially because both the US and Iran have become cautious, if not more uncompromising.

Iran adopted a "retreat in order to advance" strategy once Joe Biden emerged as the leading Democrat candidate in the presidential campaign, because as Biden had said he would try to revive the Iran nuclear deal. It has adopted a tougher stance, even used geopolitical means such as increasing the number of centrifuges and concentration of enriched uranium, resuming ballistic missile tests, repeatedly stressing that the US should return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action framework without strings attached, and detained a South Korean oil tanker for several months early this year to force South Korea to pay its oil debt-in order to force the US to accept its conditions for the revival of the nuclear deal.

The process to revive the JCPOA reached a critical stage thanks to the efforts of all parties after Biden was elected US president. Biden wants to rejoin the JCPOA but without preconditions, which is effectively a continuation of his predecessor Donald Trump's policy but without the 12 demands former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo set. Iran, on its part, emphasizes that the US stick to the nuclear deal but refuses to hold direct talks with US representatives, putting the US under psychological and moral pressure.

On the other hand, the Biden administration has been struggling to deal with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic woes at home, and the Afghanistan issue, and Russia and China abroad. Perhaps that's why the White House deems a return to the JCPOA less urgent. The low risk of being drawn into a new regional war since the IAEA has been constantly monitoring Iran's nuclear activities may also have prompted the US to pay less attention to the nuclear deal than it deserves.

Besides, Iran has adopted a hard-line policy, even creating a confrontational atmosphere, to warn the US that it has to resolve the nuclear issue, because it assumes the US will lessen its engagement in the Middle East to save energy and resources. Given these possibilities, the Iranian navy and the US fleets confronted each other over the control of an oil tanker in October. Iran even claimed to have thwarted the US' plan to intercept an Iranian tanker and steal Iranian oil while the US downplayed the incident, saying its naval fleet was only supervising the navigation of the Iranian tanker.

The truth could not be verified independently since no other party was present on the scene in the Persian Gulf, making the confrontation a Roshomon-like scenario in international politics. The rhetoric that has emerged can be seen as attempts by both sides to garner favorable public opinion and get the upper hand in the psychological warfare. Teheran has criticized Washington's act of wantonly holding Iranian oil tankers to ransom, saying it is against international law. While the US claims it was overseeing the Iranian tanker's navigation and thus performing its duty according to United Nations resolutions. Actually, they seem to be probing each other's bottom line.

In the past, both the US and Iran have intercepted each other's ships. For example, the US held up ships sailing from Iraq to Iran and vice-versa during the Gulf War, and Iran intercepted the ROK oil tanker and released it only after South Korea paid part of its debt this year.

After the announcement of the latest round of talks, Iran has not only released a video of the US forces trying to steal Iranian oil, but also held massive anti-US rallies to mark the 42nd anniversary of the US embassy takeover in Teheran. Maybe new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi wants to project his government as a strong anti-US entity at home and approach the new round of talks from a position of strength.

Both Washington and Teheran don't want to be held responsible for ending the Iran nuclear deal or sparking a new war, and yet neither seems to be in a hurry to fully revive the nuclear deal. They are testing each other's will and patience and waiting for the other to blink first.

Moreover, since Biden's approval rating is relatively low and Trump who adopted a tough stance on Iran declaring that he will run for president in 2024, Biden may not risk reviving the JCPOA without strings attached. Especially, since the Democrats don't appear confident of winning the mid-term elections next year, they would want to adopt a tougher Iran policy. So it is likely that the Iran nuclear talks will drag on without bearing fruit.

The author is a senior professor at and dean of the Institute for Studies on the Mediterranean Rim, Zhejiang International Studies University.

The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.

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