Iran has resumed its participation in the nuclear talks in Vienna. The talks are mediated by the European Union, and the U.S. and Iran are expected to attempt to reach an agreement that will bring the U.S. back to the bilateral agreement: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The new regime in Tehran has made it clear that it will not make life easy for the U.S., and Iran has recently used its proxy powers in the Middle East to attack U.S. forces and its allies. There is much at stake – and while it is clear the White House is not interested in use of force if Iran pushes the envelope too much, things might escalate.
Resuming Talks in Vienna
Ibrahim Raisi, the president of Iran, said in a phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin that “the Islamic Republic of Iran is very serious in the negotiations and we are equally serious in ensuring the rights of our nation in lifting the sanctions as well… we are ready to finalize a comprehensive document on long-term cooperation between the two countries so that the process of further development of the relations and cooperation between the two countries can be implemented as soon as possible.”
The Russian involvement is indicative of the new reality in global politics. Russia has also made some clear moves to limit Iranian involvement in Syria, expecting to ensure Russia’s primary role in the rebuilding of Syria. That enterprise promises to include many billions of dollars of international monies that will be needed to rebuild Syrian infrastructure and industry.
The obvious question is how much will the Russians want to put obstacles in the path of the U.S.? Iran has taken some bold moves in recent months testing U.S. resolve in anticipation of the talks in Vienna. After the fall of Kabul and the obvious rising tensions with China and Russia, Iran might be betting that the U.S. wants to put the Middle East in its rearview mirror.
Iran in a Post-Trump Era
In recent months, Iran used its proxy powers to attack both U.S. and U.S. allies in the region. This is not the first time such attacks have happened.
In the Trump era, Iranian forces attacked Saudi territory, and the Iranian navy made moves against British ships in the Persian Gulf. The killing of military general Qassem Soleimani illustrated there is a price for these moves and that, coupled with several assassinations in Iran attributed to the Mossad, made the regime in Tehran take its time in hoping for a change in the White House.
Since the election of President Biden, Iran has made some moves to reclaim its lost honor. Last month, drones attacked a U.S. base in eastern North Syria. The attack was most likely carried out by a pro-Iranian militia under the orders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The drones, which are the new favorite weapon of the Iranian regime, were later used in a brazen attack on the home of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadimi.
Anna Foster, a BBC Middle East correspondent, remarked, “The Shia Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr claimed victory, as his party gained the most seats. He’s pushing for a government free from foreign interference – and crucially that means from Iran as well as the West. He wants to end Tehran’s influence over Iraq’s internal affairs.”
Use of Force
If the talks in Vienna fail, the use of military force is on the table. Israel has issued clear statements that it will attack Iranian nuclear sites if the talks fail. There have been several public statements to that effect by Israeli officials, such as a recent one stating the Israeli air force began planning and exercising attacks on targets in Iran.
While the Iranians might be willing to bet that the Israeli Air Force will not be able to successfully destroy Iranian nuclear plants since these plants are in dozens of locations (some plants are located deep underground and would require bunker-destroying ammunition), there is no question that the U.S. can launch an attack on the nuclear project even with all these obstacles.
In a press briefing, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas Greenfield, reiterated the U.S. position that sanctions are the answer to failure of the Vienna talks: “On Iran’s aggression in the region, President Biden has made clear that the United States is firmly committed to ensuring Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. And I think you know the administration continues to believe in diplomacy in coordination with our allies and regional partners.”
“We believe this is the best path forward to achieve that goal,” she continued. “And we also believe that a mutual return to the JCPOA compliance would restore the nonproliferation achievements of the deal. So again, the administration has been conscious of Iran’s escalation of its nuclear activities beyond the JCPOA’s limits, and we think these are unconstructive and not in accordance with its stated goals of returning to mutual compliance with the JCPOA. They only isolate Iran internationally and will not provide Iran any negotiating leverage.”
The U.S. might need to make it clearer to Iran that the use of military forces is a viable option, and the latest brazen attacks by the proxy forces of the IRGC – along with the new vitriol spoken by the hardline president in Tehran – might give the Iranian negotiation team a sense of boldness that needs to be dealt with.
The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, might need to realize that F-35s and U.S. bombers can destroy any target they choose in Iran. This might be the only way to dissuade Khamenei and other international players who saw the Kabul withdrawal and deduced it is the time to push back.