By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
Discussions aimed at the revival of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are expected to continue in Vienna, but there appears to be very little confidence about the prospect of them actually achieving their goal. Of course, the confidence had already declined sharply after Iran withdrew from planning for a new session of the talks in June and left the process stalled for five months. When that process finally resumed last week, it did so among statements from Iranian officials which not only reasserted but intensified the regime’s hardline posture.
Over the course of the week, that situation received increasingly broad recognition as Western participants in the Vienna talks expressed their disappointment and frustration over Tehran’s apparent refusal to compromise. The regime continues to insist upon comprehensive relief from US sanctions without offering anything whatsoever in return. As US officials explained in remarks to the media, last week saw the Iranians offering “proposals that walked back anything – any of the compromises Iran had floated here in the six rounds of talks –, pocket all of the compromises that others, the U.S. in particular, had made and then asked for more.”
Though disappointing to many, this hardline strategy comes as little surprise to anyone who is appropriately familiar with the Iranian regime. The regime’s talking points about upfront sanctions relief emerged when the talks were still in the hands of Rouhani. Since then, Tehran has taken a sharp turn toward even more hardline leadership, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei facilitating the installation of one of his favorite clerics, Ebrahim Raisi, as the country’s next president.
It was Raisi’s “election” in June that prompted the regime to stall the Vienna talks and since then the regime’s critics have been warning of the potential for its malign activities to increase in multiple different areas. These predictions have been borne out not only by intransigent statements in Vienna, but also by a surge in domestic unrest and accompanying violent repression, as well as a general increase in the Iranian regime’s rate of executions.
Raisi’s own background demonstrates his connection to that first goal, in that he was one of the leading perpetrators of the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners during the summer of 1988.
The Raisi administration is comprised of an apparently unprecedented number of officers from the regime’s hardline paramilitary, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as a number of individuals who are under sanction or even subject to international arrest warrants for their involvement in terrorism and human rights abuses. In most cases, their hardline backgrounds have already been clearly reflected in their policies and public statements since the administration began taking shape in the summer.
The regime’s current posture at the Vienna talks is merely an extension of this phenomenon and therefore should have been very easy for Western participants to anticipate. In the wake of the International Atomic Energy Organization’s latest quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program, Raisi’s head of the Iranian nuclear authority openly boasted about the IAEA supposedly underestimating the amount of uranium the country’s nuclear facilities had enriched to 20 percent fissile purity.
Even by the IAEA estimates, the regime’s current stockpiles could yield more than half the amount of weapons grade uranium needed for a nuclear weapon if enriched further. And the stage is apparently set for Iran to achieve that further enrichment very quickly, given that certain facilities have set up advanced enrichment centrifuges in sequence, in clear violation of the 2015 agreement.
According to Mohammed Eslami, the Iranian nuclear chief, the country actually has at least 50 percent more 20-percent enriched uranium than the IAEA reported. His rhetoric underscores the fact that since February nuclear inspectors have not had access to surveillance footage and other data from Iranian facilities. Since June, cameras have been entirely offline at one facility that manufactures enrichment centrifuges, thus making it a lasting blind spot for inspectors. Meanwhile, centrifuges potentially manufactured at that plant may be among those installed at the site in Fordo which is built into a mountain and fortified against military attack.
Of course, there is ample reason to believe that Iran’s adversaries will be able to overcome those defenses. But the longer they allow Iran to build up its nuclear infrastructure while also demanding the removal of US sanctions, the more likely it becomes that they will someday have to do so. Now that there is no longer any question about Iran’s commitment to a hardline strategy at the nuclear talks, it is time for Western participants to respond in kind by activating the snapback mechanism and the return of global sanctions and six UN Security Council resolutions.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)