Can a Deal Be Reached With Iran?

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani. Credit: Mostafa Asgari / Tasnim News Agency

“Disappointed and concerned” were the words European diplomats used to euphemistically describe Iran’s proposals for a return to a new nuclear deal with the US and other world powers. Given what’s at stake here – war with Iran, or the Middle East’s destabilizer-in-chief wielding the world’s most powerful weapons – it’s possible this is a slight understatement.

As the reasonable face of America, it is one of President Biden’s signature foreign policy goals to return to the Iran Deal – or some variation of it. Current negotiations between the US and Iran in Vienna – occurring via shuttle diplomacy with European diplomats as intermediaries, after Iran refused to speak directly to US delegations – may be the final chance to achieve this.

However, after four years of suffering under Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, it is now Iran’s turn to be uncompromising. European diplomats, generally the less hawkish parties to the Iran Deal, have said that “Tehran is walking back almost all of the difficult compromises crafted after many months of hard work”, and that it has “fast forwarded its nuclear program” after interrupting negotiations five months ago. This alarmist-sounding rhetoric is what we may have otherwise expected to hear from Israeli politicians.

Iran’s hard line shows the leverage it has – or, at least, believes it has – against its adversaries. Its uranium is currently enriched at 60% – frighteningly close to the 90% rate required for a nuclear weapon. Implicit in these talks, then, is the threat by Iran to simply rush towards a bomb – which experts say may be possible in a matter of months. To stop this from happening, it is demanding the US remove all sanctions, thereby giving them access to the financial resources to continue funding their proxies, and further their dominance over the region (a goal which they are still pursuing under sanctions). 

Currently the Biden administration is unwilling to do this. The Iranian delegation has been sent back home to assess the situation and seek instructions. There is talk of a possible ‘less for less’ agreement, whereby Iran accepts smaller constraints on its nuclear programme in exchange for some sanctions relief. However, even if a compromise begins to look possible, the options facing the Biden administration are the same ones the Obama administration faced during their talks with Iran: allowing Iran to build a nuclear weapon, or allowing Iran to effectively dominate the region. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Obama signed with Iran essentially opted for the former.

Trump’s strategy, on the other hand, was to deny Iran both of these luxuries, threaten them with war if they went too far in their nuclear program, and bet that Iran wouldn’t take him up on it; a ‘have our cake and eat it’ approach. Risky though it was, the strategy did contain both Iran’s regional and its nuclear ambitions for a long time. However, it overlooked the possibility that Iran may not be as threatened by a Democratic administration.

Which brings up the other terrifying possibility here: war with Iran. Should Iran not budge, and overplay its hand on its nuclear program, the Biden administration could feel forced to take military action – or ‘Plan B’, as Washington has referred to it. If the US blinks, however, Israel has warned it will take matters into its own hands. The latter views a nuclear Iran as an existential threat, and has never been convinced of the JCPOA’s ability to keep Iran’s nuclear ambitions in check. 

If war does break out, all bets are off. Iran may choose to activate its proxies surrounding Israel, some of whom, such as Hezbollah, have sophisticated missile stockpiles, thereby putting Israel in a multi-front war. This would likely be followed by punishing retaliations by Israel, inevitably killing large numbers of civilians. So far, the balance of terror has prevented this long-anticipated war from breaking out; however, as Iran inches closer to ‘breaking out’, Israel may feel it must act now or forever hold its planes.

The Iran problem is one that can never truly be solved, but can only be managed. But even managing it is now looking liable to fail disastrously. The Biden administration has no good options; pulling the region back from the brink of war may be as much as anyone can ask for in the current negotiations. Hopefully this is achievable – although, with the clock ticking, and the centrifuges spinning, hope it is in dangerously short supply.

Patrick Hess is a recent Master’s graduate in Middle Eastern Studies. He is currently based in London. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.