The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) members are getting ready to go back to the negotiation table. The stakes are high, but expectations are low. Much has changed since the talks were suspended in June of this year.
For one, Iranian faces at the table are new and already evoke a sense of unease. The country has moved far outside the gambit of the nuclear deal. Moreover, for the first time since trying to revive the agreement, the Biden administration is talking of a "Plan B."
A New Iran Regime
The nuclear deal talks were suspended after Iranians elected a new President in their general elections. Soon after taking office, the radical and IRGC affiliated regime headed by President Ebrahim Raisi replaced Ali Akbar Salehi, the chief architect of the JCPOA and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) for close to a decade, with Mohammad Eslami, an UN-sanctioned engineer, as the nation's top atomic official.
Mohammad Eslami was sanctioned in 2008 by the International Atomic Energy Agency for "being engaged in, directly associated with or providing support for Iran's proliferation sensitive nuclear activities or for the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems." He is also said to have overseen a "clandestine nuclear weapons effort codenamed Amad."
President Raisi's scant regard for international approval is evident in his choice of the cabinet. About a dozen of its members have been sanctioned by the U.S., the EU, the UN, and the UK for various reasons, including links with terror groups, human rights abuses, and their part in the country's nuclear weapons program.
Genie Out Of The Bottle
Tehran continues to argue that its nuclear program is peaceful and for civil purposes. They point to the "lack of evidence" of their nuclear-weapons program. Yet, the regime's strides in its nuclear program since American's abrupt departure from the JCPOA are deemed "irreversible."
Since the U.S. unilateral and abrupt withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, the country has disregarded many stipulations binding its nuclear program. There have been numerous reports of Iran's experiments with advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium and its capability of enrichment levels of 60% or more. In September, the Institute for Science and International Security reported that Tehran has the capability and components to produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel for one bomb in "as short as one month." The objective of the 2015 deal, which was also "to keep Iran at least 12 months away from amassing enough nuclear fuel for a weapon," seems to have failed completely.
Iran's demands going into the negotiations are unlikely to be met and could drag out the process. They are unwilling to settle for a partial deal and call for full sanction relief. Further, Tehran is demanding a guarantee that the U.S. will not pull out of the agreement again as President Trump did in 2018.
Even as American diplomats are engaged in talks to build consensus with European and Middle-eastern allies, the all-new AUKUS deal could prove a thorn in the side. The agreement that gives the Australian navy a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines has exposed the big loophole in the nuclear non-proliferation agenda.
Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran's permanent ambassador to the IAEA, calling attention to the matter, said at the annual meeting, "It is regrettable that the countries that scold Iran for enriching uranium up to 60% for humanitarian and peaceful purposes have now decided to sell to Australia military nuclear submarines that will run on uranium enriched to a level of more than 90%."
Fears have been raised that Iran may get past IAEA guidelines by claiming its nuclear stockpile is meant for use in submarines.
The Biden administration's efforts to present a unified front, against Iran, with its Israeli counterparts, seem to be of no avail. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his officials are urging Washington to take an uncompromising stance against Tehran.
Strongly opposed to the JCPOA in 2015, the country has not changed its position. Israelis argue that sanction relief enables Tehran to pursue its military and nuclear goals, and temporary restrictions are insufficient to dissuade the regime. Israel sees nuclear-armed Iran as an "existential threat." Anticipating Iran's continued perusal of nuclear technology and possibly nuclear weapons, Mr. Bennett's cabinet has allocated an additional $1.4 billion to tackle the threat.
On the other hand, Tehran has accused Israel repeatedly of sabotaging its nuclear facilities. It also blames the country for the assassination of its top military-nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, in late 2020.
A 'Plan B'
There is a subtle change in the Biden administrations' stance going into the next round of negotiations. After their meetings, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid disclosed that the two countries had explored "other options" should Iran continue to thwart attempts to revive the deal.
Though no further details were forthcoming, many believe that the Biden administration may opt for a "non-diplomatic Plan B" with the support of its allies, which may include increased sanctions and military and covert actions. A U.S. State Department spokeswoman said regarding resumption of the negotiations, "If Iran does so with realistic positions, we can quickly reach and implement an understanding on a mutual return to full compliance with the deal. But if Iran does not, we will respond accordingly and have a variety of tools at our disposal."
There is little trust at the negotiations table and maybe even less hope of a diplomatic breakthrough. Iran has few allies, and its economy is under severe stress. With inflation at around 45 percent, the country cannot afford another slew of sanctions.
What incentives would induce Tehran to toe the line? Would the interests of the Iranian people and the need to rebuild their economy be considerations enough?
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The deepening of ties between China and Russia is unprecedented and comes at a time of escalating tensions with the West.
A pact signed by Russia and China capped a year that saw unprecedented growth in military cooperation, including large-scale war games in China's Ningxia in August, when Russian troops became the first foreign forces to join a regular Chinese drill.
Beijing and Moscow share similar approaches to Iran, Syria, and Venezuela on foreign policy and recently revived a push to lift United Nations sanctions on North Korea.
And on the economic front, for China, Russia is the biggest supplier of its weapons and the second-largest source of its oil imports.
And for Russia, China is its top country trading partner and a key source of investment in its energy projects, including the Yamal LNG plant in the Arctic Circle.
The United States threatened on Thursday to confront Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency next month if it does not cooperate more with the watchdog.
Iran denies the IAEA access to re-install surveillance cameras at a workshop at the TESA Karaj complex. The IAEA also wants answers on the origin of uranium particles found at apparently old but undeclared sites and says Iran keeps subjecting its inspectors to "excessively invasive physical searches."
The TESA Karaj workshop was struck by apparent sabotage in June, which Iran says was an attack by Israel.
One of four IAEA cameras installed there was destroyed, and its footage is missing. Iran removed all the cameras after the incident. Israel has not commented on the incident.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic have met at a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Vucic has publicly pleaded with the Russian side to offer "favorable" pricing on a new 10-year natural-gas deal to replace the current agreement that expires at the end of this year.
Although progress is mired in delays, Serbia, a candidate country for EU accession, is also one of Russia's closest European allies.
Vucic has sought to maintain constructive relations with Moscow while aggressively courting China and avoiding harming its relations with the European Union.
After the meeting, he alluded to the early arrival of tactical weapons and said he "prayed that certain things arrive in Serbia more quickly," without specifying.
National Geographic magazine's famed green-eyed "Afghan Girl" has arrived in Italy as part of the West's evacuation of Afghans.
Italy organized the evacuation of Sharbat Gulla after she asked for help to leave the country. The Italian government will now help to get her integrated into life in Italy.
Ms. Gulla gained international fame in 1984 as an Afghan refugee girl, after war photographer Steve McCurry's photograph of her, with piercing green eyes, was published on the cover of National Geographic. McCurry found her again in 2002
Italy was one of several Western countries that airlifted hundreds of Afghans out of the country following the departure of US forces and the Taliban takeover in August.
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