According to lead Iranian nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi, Tehran now has no intentions of sending its stockpiles of enriched uranium out of the country to be turned into fuel rods that would be much more difficult to weaponize. This was understood to be an essential part of the Western process for verifying Iran’s compliance with the restrictions imposed on its nuclear enrichment and would-be weapons development. And it was a point that Iran had agreed to ahead of the second lapsed deadline for a nuclear agreement last November.
NBC News notes that the sudden rejection of an important demand is just one of several signs that the talks may not be going well at a very crucial time. However, with the negotiations entering the last day before the framework deadline, there was also some talk about what that deadline really entails.
On Monday, an article at Townhall pointed out that the Iranian side was not acknowledging any deadline other than the final deadline of June 30. The article added that even if an agreement was reached on March 31, it was likely to be nothing more than an “informal consensus” that would not even be written down until close to the final deadline anyway.
But Townhall also indicates that disagreement about the existence of the framework deadline has not prevented Iran from trying to exploit it by introducing new demands such as the demand to keep its enriched uranium stockpiles, in order to “exploit Western desperation to extract even more concessions.”
The same article puts this latest Iranian demand in context with a list of Iranian demands previously acceded to by Western negotiators:
“So in addition to being able to maintain their rogue nuclear program’s infrastructure, keep thousands of centrifuges spinning, do nothing to renounce or scale back their support for terrorism/regional power plays/human rights abuses, or give up their long-range missile program, Tehran has insisted that they also be allowed to keep their fortified underground enrichment bunkers in operation, and is now backing away from a previously-stated willingness to remove enriched uranium from the country. (In addition to asking that sanctions relief begin immediately, based upon no evidence of compliance.)”
This goes a long way toward explaining why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes that the deal taking shape in Lausanne, Switzerland today “paves Iran’s way to the bomb.” This is a sentiment that Netanyahu expressed to the US Congress in a speech at the beginning of March, and according to Breaking Israel News it is a sentiment that he expressed to several US Senators again on Sunday as they visited Jerusalem.
Of course, Netanyahu also took this opportunity to comment on the relevance of the nuclear talks to Iran’s aggression in the region, including its backing of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are now coming against opposition from a coalition of Arab nations worried about the expansion of Iranian power.
“The agreement being formulated… sends a message that there is no price for aggression and, on the contrary, that Iran’s aggression is to be rewarded,” Netanyahu said according to the Times of Israel.
The Israeli Prime Minister’s remarks about this situation suggest that Iran’s regional activities are another complicating factor in the nuclear talks, or at least that they would be if those activities generated an appropriate Western response.
The same attitude has been variously expressed by Western policymakers, commentators, and experts. Case in point, Arutz Sheva points out that on Monday former CIA Director James Woolsey compared Iran’s regional aggression to that of Nazi Germany. Woolsey noted that both forms of aggression have a “highly ideological basis,” which makes them poor prospects for diplomacy.
“Given Iran’s aggressiveness and the fanaticism of its leaders, I don’t think we can do a reasonable deal with them. They’ll cheat,” Woolsey said on the CNBC program Squawk Box.
Naturally, this contributes to concerns that military conflict with Iran will be the natural consequence of a breakdown in the diplomatic process. But some believe that Iran’s regional activities also demonstrate its vulnerability to such conflict, and that the response to its influence in Yemen is the first major proof of this.
On Monday, Turkish NY quoted Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute, as saying that Iran has exploited regional power vacuums to expand the reach of its influence, but that influence has remained mainly superficial. “I don’t think Iran’s influence is that deep, and that is a problem for Iran,” he said.
In fact, the expansion of Iran’s superficial influence actually threatens to compromise the Islamic Republic’s relations with would-be partners in the region. Agence France-Presse reported on Monday that Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s planned visit to Iran was facing opposition for Iranian conservatives because of Erdogan’s statements last week about Iran’s pursuit of regional hegemony and Turkey’s willingness to provide support to the coalition opposing Iranian influence in Yemen.
And despite the fact that the US is still striving to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, it has also shown willingness to contribute to the efforts of the Arab coalition in Yemen. At the same time, unconfirmed reports from Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officials suggest that the US may finally be taking action, albeit clandestine, to counteract Iranian influence in Iraq. If this is the case, then the perceived need for this confrontation will raise additional questions about the viability of a diplomatic agreement between Iran and the West.
In Tikrit, a major offensive is underway to wrest the city from control by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Early in the life of that offensive, the US declined to support it from the air for fear of empowering Shiite militias affiliated with Iran, but last week it changed course and began providing air support while dubiously claiming that the Shiite militias had withdrawn. Now the Associated Press reports that the IRGC has accused the US of killing two of its advisers near Tikrit in a drone strike. The US denies this, but the story remains as an example of escalating tensions.
Interestingly, in spite of all these factors that are complicating the nuclear talks at a crucial point in the process, poll data shows that the Iranian people are optimistic about the prospects for an agreement that would lead to the lifting of economic sanctions on their country. Gallup finds that 70 percent of Iranians are either somewhat hopeful or very hopeful about the negotiations.
But the statistical figures still raise the question of how a generally hopeful Iranian populous will react if nuclear negotiations fail in the immediate aftermath of Iran raising its demands and otherwise complicating the talks.