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The last hours before returning to the nuclear deal

Eva J. KOULOURIOTIS

08/06/2021 Region: Middle East Topic: Military

Prior to the start of the 6th round in Vienna, delegations taking part in closed-door talks between Western countries led by Washington on the one hand and Iran on the other, made a sudden pause. The widespread perception is that Washington is returning to the nuclear deal that Trump pulled out of, while the course of negotiations has taken a new direction which is to push Tehran back to the previous nuclear deal, which in turn extended the base of negotiations to include other files in the Middle East, the most important of which are Israel and Iran's influence in the region.

First of all, it should be emphasized that the confidential information that will be agreed will be particularly important in determining the course of the next four years in the Middle East in general. This conclusion can be drawn from the observation of the events before the signing of the nuclear deal in 2015, which included US and Iranian promises regarding Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. The most important question before the next round of talks is what will be the concessions of the US and Iran, while the return to the nuclear agreement is more likely to be announced at the end of the negotiations.

Usually, when it comes to Iran, there are always files that are directly affected by any changes, plans or agreements to which Tehran is a party. One of the most important is Iran's influence in many Middle Eastern countries, plus its nuclear and missile program, and finally Tel Aviv's vision for its national security. Therefore, each issue must be read separately and the possibilities of being affected by any new nuclear deal with Iran must be analysed in detail.

Iran's nuclear program

First of all, it should be emphasized that in Iran there are two parties that sometimes struggle to impose their vision on each other and to convince the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The first party is represented by the military lobby led by the generals of the Revolutionary Guards. The other lobby consists of moderates and is represented by Foreign Ministry officials, led by Javad Zarif. After the assassination of General Soleimani, the influence of the military wing was affected, in favour of the diplomatic wing. But the arrival of Biden and the Democrats in the White House has helped diversify Tehran's mood, where the debate today is that Iran is in no hurry to return to the nuclear deal and give up uranium enrichment it has achieved in recent months. In fact, given a US government open to concessions to Tehran and without the courage to take military action, why not take advantage of this reality and push for the production of a nuclear bomb?

This debate has been and continues to be the reason for the delay in returning to the nuclear deal so far. Washington, from the first round of talks in Vienna, was ready to lift sanctions and return to the 2015 agreement, but the difference of opinion inside Iran delayed it due to a conflict that is far from the forefront between Khamenei's two wings. This Iranian internal conflict was recently made public through leaks from an interview with the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who seriously damaged his reputation in Iran and in the eyes of the Supreme Leader, who publicly criticized him immediately.

In light of this reality, with Iran balancing its diplomatic and military camps and delaying its decisions, Washington has been pressured to make more concessions on other issues. Most likely, Iran will publicly return to the agreement and make promises to reduce uranium enrichment, but secretly and in the underground tunnels of its nuclear power plants things will be completely different.

The ballistic program

This is one of the first archives to be waived by Washington and its Western allies. Discussing whether Tehran will stop developing its ballistic program has become absurd or even irrational. Iran, through the Revolutionary Guards, has expanded to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, where it has developed production centres in all these countries. Even Hamas, which is besieged in Gaza Strip and monitored 24 hours a day by the Israeli Mossad, has been able to develop a ballistic missile program in cooperation with Tehran, as seen during the recent Gaza conflict with the Qassam 250 rockets. It is more likely that Washington will not set conditions for this program, so it is certain that development in this area will continue beyond the next agreement.

Influence in the area

The hottest topic in the region is Yemen. The US envoy to Yemen is still in a round of talks between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman, where he met with the Houthi representative. It is clear that the Biden administration, whose first decision on the Middle East was to remove the Houthis from the Washington terrorist lists to which were included by Trump less than a month before Biden arrived at the White House. This shows that this administration is closer to satisfying the views of Tehran and its Houthi allies in Yemen in the context of any forthcoming agreement and will likely be among the undisclosed clauses. The most likely formula would be a joint government in which the Houthis have considerable influence.

In Syria and Lebanon, the situation is not very different from that in Yemen. Iran's presence in Syria, whether militarily or financially, will not change despite Israeli promises for the opposite, while Tehran will work to pressure Washington to reduce economic sanctions on Assad and his militias, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israel

It is important to note that the recent formation of a national unity government in Tel Aviv, without Netanyahu, is directly linked to the negotiations in Vienna between Washington and Tehran. In my opinion, the Israeli lobby in Washington played a key role in pushing Lapid and Bennett to form a coalition government to oust Netanyahu as prime minister. The Biden administration has been confronted with Netanyahu's anti-Iranian moves since its arrival, most notably targeting the Iranian Natanz reactor despite US calls for calm and the subsequent military escalation in Gaza. All this contributed to the breach of trust between the two sides. This was clear from Netanyahu's recent statements when he stressed that "if Israel was forced to choose between its national security (meaning Iran's nuclear threat) and its American allies, Israel would choose its national security." The new Israeli government would be less confrontational with Iran and more willing to focus on domestic issues and the Palestinians.

Although the new nuclear deal may be seen by some as an opportunity to calm down and control the tense atmosphere in the region, my personal view differs from this perception. What will happen is more polarization of views between one side led by Iran and the other side led by the Israeli far right and its Arab allies in Abu Dhabi. Most likely any calm in the coming period will be a prelude to a new storm whose sparks will start from the Iranian hands in the region.