Opinion: America has taken its eyes off the ball on Iran

“We are reaching a point where Iran’s nuclear escalation will have eliminated the substance of the JCPOA,” It says Arms Control Association earlier this month of the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan, Iran’s nuclear deal signed by the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China, the United States and Iran in 2015.
Three years later, President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the pact and reintroduced sanctions against Iran. While the JCPOA is still recognized by the remaining signatories, Iran has the page started an accelerated uranium enrichment program that could enable it to create a weapon faster.
Every delay in the negotiations there has just resumed after a brief hiatus in the eighth round in Vienna, Iran gives time to make further progress towards the ability – if not the will – to make at least one testable nuclear weapon. And there is, in fact, a theoretical off-ramp, barely two weeks left, when the sixth month of negotiations has reached and the negotiations can come to a real and toxic end.

“Iran today is probably within a month or two of having enough material that, with further enrichment, could be sufficient to actually build a bomb,” said Gary Sick, head of Columbia University’s Gulf / 2000 project and Iran expert. in the National Security Council under President Jimmy Carter, told me via email interview.

“However, the skill and experience they have developed in this round will not be forgotten. So even if Iran returns to its original status from 2015, it will be better equipped to get there faster next time, if there is a next one. time. “, added Sick.

But Sick and others believe Iran has not yet made the final decision to take the final step toward a testable nuclear unit. The great Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who will make such a decision, has said one atomic bomb is “haram” or forbidden in Islam. Furthermore, Sick points out that Iran is at least a year or two away from producing a device that can be mounted on a missile and fired at a neighboring country or beyond.
Meanwhile, the White House is playing the blame – and is increasingly blaming Iran’s accelerating progress toward a bomb on Trump’s withdrawal from the process. But in fact, the United States risks taking its eye off the ball, focuses intensely on talking to Russia about Ukraine without seeing how they can somehow be tied together.
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Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moscow no longer shares a border with Iran, but the last thing Russia wants is another nuclear power close by. Bring China into the equation and this will quickly become three-dimensional chess. Although China is concerned about a broader conflict in the Middle East that could disrupt some of its energy supplies, China shares few of Russia’s fears of a nuclear-armed Iran.

At the same time, China, as one of the very few customers for Iranian oil under sanctions, has few incentives to see the sanctions lifted. However, the White House insists that the administration has been able to engage with Russia and China in the JCPOA format, and that it is still only Iran that is pulling on its heels.

Yet both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his top negotiator Wendy Sherman, the original architect of the JCPOA under President Barack Obama, have focused intensely on the Russia-Ukraine negotiations and on seeking a European agreement on sanctions should Putin invade. In fact, when Blinken was interviewed on NPR last week, he spent much of his time talking about Russia and Ukraine. Eventually, when the talk went to Iran, Blinking affectionate most of his energy to blame Trump.

There is no doubt that the immediate impact of a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be appalling, but Iran’s relentless move towards uranium enrichment and the evidence that the United States at least seems to have prioritized negotiations with Russia over Ukraine, can not be lost on a very knowledgeable Iranian leadership.

Senior officials in the Biden administration have told me that they believe they are capable of engaging with Russia and China with regard to the JCPOA. The key evidence will be where the negotiations stand when they reopen after the current break.

In fact, virtually everyone with a share in Iran’s nuclear capabilities is beginning to reposition itself in the event of a breakdown in negotiations.

At a meeting between Chinese and Iranian foreign ministers last week, countries announced a 25-year co-operation agreement aimed at strengthening economic and political ties. China has become a major customer for Iranian oil, import some 590,000 barrels a day last year, the highest level since Trump reintroduced sanctions. The lifting of sanctions could threaten this exclusivity.
At the same time, Russia and Iran are also strengthening ties, with President Vladimir Putin hosting his counterpart, President Ebrahim Raisi, later this month. in the middle of plans for a 20-year trade and military agreement.
Other nations in the region have also begun to uncover their efforts. Israel and Russia have major interests in Iran’s nuclear capabilities – perhaps even larger than Western Europe or the United States, which is out of reach of any Iranian missile that has been tested so far.
Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Putin agreed on continued close cooperation in this area. according to Office of the Prime Minister of Israel. The two countries already have one “deconflict” agreement enabling Israeli warplanes to attack Iranian bases and weapons convoys in Syria – deconstruction is a significant extension if Israel were to launch an air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Elsewhere, Saudi Arabia has begun having fun to Beijing. China helps the Saudis with everything from a missile development program to a massive desalination network and is already one of Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partners. It is a relationship that could prove to be a fruitful source of nuclear technology if Iran develops its own weapons.
Back at the JCPOA negotiating table, Iran’s key conditions remain largely unchanged. Nournews, a news service associated Iran’s Supreme National Security Council reported last week that “verification and assurances” – code for the continued demand that all sanctions be lifted – are a precondition for Iran to give its consent to resume the deal.

But there are several issues on which a successful outcome of the Iran negotiations may well depend.

Will Iran content itself with being a state permanently on a nuclear threshold, and will it satisfy its neighbors’ security needs and potential goals?

For now, the United States must thread this impossibly slender eye of the needle. It is difficult to see how the JCPOA process could survive a complete collapse of East-West security negotiations or more specifically any intrusion into Ukraine by Russian forces.

But the Biden administration must find a way to stay focused on Iran. At the next round of the Vienna negotiations, there must be some real, concrete evidence of progress.

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