By: Alejo Vidal Quadras
Representatives of the Iranian regime are expected to meet with all other signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal apart from the United States this week. The gathering in Vienna is being described as a venue for “indirect” negotiations between Iran and the U.S., pending direct talks that would hash out the details of both nations returning to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
It remains to be seen whether the meeting will yield any actual progress and the U.S. State Department has expressed rather subdued expectations about the prospect for a breakthrough. This seems appropriate, given that Iranian officials demonstrated no change in tone whatsoever ahead of the talks. In a preliminary virtual meeting on Friday, Iran’s nuclear negotiator and former Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Abbas Araqchi, downplayed the value of any forthcoming negotiations, saying they were necessary to determine which course of action should be taken on each side.
“The U.S. can return to the deal and stop breaching the law in the same way it withdrew from the deal and imposed illegal sanctions on Iran,” Araqchi said, apparently reiterating the intransigent position previously taken by other officials.
The U.S. has made the opposite demand, signaling that it is willing to suspend the sanctions, but only after Iran resumes compliance with the deal that laid the groundwork for sanctions relief in the first place.
When one looks closely at the Iranian regime’s behavior during this period of elevated tensions, it is fairly easy to conclude that the U.S. administration would be better off sticking to its guns and insisting upon Iran’s full and verifiable compliance with the JCPOA as a precondition for any relief from economic sanctions. Still, the administration’s openness to compromise should serve as a reminder to its European allies regarding what their role should be in the forthcoming negotiations.
That is to say, the mission of the European Union, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom should not be to outline a path to re-implementation that is acceptable to the Iranian regime. Instead, it should be to apply diplomatic pressure on the Iranian regime to stop its nuclear blackmail. Intransigence has been the Iranian regime’s approach throughout this process and if that is taken seriously as a starting position, it will only lead to Tehran being rewarded for what amounts to nuclear blackmail.
As they prepare for renewed negotiations, the European signatories to the JCPOA must not overlook what this diplomatic crisis has revealed about the deficiencies of the existing agreement.
Some European policymakers have been keen to blame Iran’s violations on the previous U.S. administration’s 2018 withdrawal from the deal. But even though that measure may have prompted the regime to begin openly and threateningly violating the JCPOA’s core provisions, it also helped to reveal the ways in which the regime had already been secretly violating both the letter and the spirit of the deal.
Even staunch defenders of the JCPOA were surprised by how quickly Tehran was able to return to the levels and types of nuclear activity it had put into place before negotiations began. Instead of ramping up gradually, nuclear facilities were seemingly able to flip a switch and put things back to the way they used to be, with little to no advance notice to or warning from international inspectors.
This came as a shock to some observers, but it wouldn’t have if they had been paying close attention to the actions and statements emanating from Tehran as leading officials worked to project an image of strength and threaten their Western adversaries into providing new concessions and reversing the economic pressure imposed by the U.S.
By no later than November 2019, Ali Akbar Salehi, the executive director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, was freely boasting to state media about the ways in which Tehran had deceived the international community over matters relating to uranium enrichment. “How did it become possible?” he anticipated Western governments asking after he referred to Iran continuing high-level enrichment past the date when restrictions were supposed to come into force.
“They thought that they won the negotiation,” he said, “…but we had a countermeasure, and while we proceeded with the case, they didn’t achieve what they planned for, and we did not become trapped in the enrichment deadlock.”
Salehi was vague about the details of this “countermeasure,” but it was not the first deception he acknowledged. More than nine months earlier, he provided significantly more information to a state television network regarding the AEOI’s effort to keep open the plutonium path to a nuclear weapon, which ran through the Arak heavy water plant. Under the terms of the JCPOA, the core of that plant was to be filled with cement, halting its production of material that could be used for military purposes. But according to Salehi, the tubes feeding into that core were replaced by decoys, and it was these through which cement was poured before authorities presented altered photos of the core to convince inspectors that the job was complete.
None of these admissions from Salehi have received adequate attention from Western media or Western government officials. Neither, for that matter, has any of the other evidence for Tehran’s deceptions or its ambition to acquire a nuclear weapon. Although officials have long denied this was their goal, Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi struck a new tone in February as part of the regime’s increasingly desperate effort to blackmail its adversaries into lifting the pressures that have brought that regime near its breaking point. “If they push Iran in that direction,” he said, “it is not Iran’s fault. Those who pushed Iran in that direction will be to blame.”
#Iran's Minister of Intelligence and Security Mahmoud Alavi frankly threatens the international community about the proliferation of #NuclearWeapons.
"We do not pursue nuclear weapons, but if foreigners pushed us, this is their fault," he said in an interview with state-run TV. pic.twitter.com/qFEZgKWKNW
— Iran News Update (@IranNewsUpdate1) February 9, 2021
For so long, the EU has turned a blind eye to the regime’s malign activities, especially regime terrorism in Europe, and only focused on JCPOA. The conviction of Asadullah Assadi, a regime’s diplomat, in Belgium court, on charges of a terror plot in Paris is the last example.
As they finalize their strategy for forthcoming negotiations, the JCPOA’s European signatories should focus on whether that strategy holds the regime to account for all its malign activities, including its state-sponsored terrorism, widespread human rights abuses, ballistic missiles program, as well as attempts to acquire nuclear weapons.
If their goal in those talks is to apologize for the U.S. and to sweet-talk Iran into renewed compliance, they will ultimately embolden more of the same provocations. If instead, they make firm demands of the regime, they will help convince the mullahs that threats and blackmail are no longer workable strategies.
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)