Iran does not seem to be in a hurry in the nuclear negotiations, despite all the pressure and criticism it faces from international powers and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which held its Board of Governors meeting on September 12-16. Iran is still dealing with the negotiations in a way that suggests it does not believe they have reached their end, and that there is still room to rely on the factor of time to obtain more benefits and privileges that could be included in any possible nuclear deal. The main line of thought in Tehran still bets that the arrival of winter will weaken the West’s position and strengthen Iran’s position in the negotiations, especially given the continued escalatory measures taken by Russia regarding energy supplies to European countries. But a trend is gradually emerging that views relying on the impact of winter’s arrival as a risk that could ultimately have serious consequences for Tehran’s interests and calculations. In this context, the Iranian "reformist" writer Abbas Abdi warned—in an article published in the Etemad Newspaper on September 11 under the title "Who is Responsible for the Nuclear Agreement?" —that "relying on the arrival of winter to change the calculations in Iran’s favor is a mirage." He called on President Ibrahim Raisi to settle the negotiations and reach a deal.
This new trend warning against the policy of buying time in the nuclear issue bases its warnings on several considerations, primarily:
1. A gradual weakening of Iran’s position: This trend believes that time may not be in Iran’s favor, in the medium and long term. The economic crisis is still gradually worsening, and the government has not been able to contain its effects so far due to pressure imposed by US sanctions. State institutions have helped somewhat to circumvent US sanctions through various mechanisms, with minimal repercussions.
More precisely, the impact of these efforts has been limited to allowing Iran to live with sanctions, not addressing the economic and social crises that have expanded significantly over the past four years since the US withdrew from the agreement on 8 May 2018. The continuation of these pressures will weaken Iran’s position, muddying its calculations and giving Western countries an opportunity to blackmail it and try to extract further concessions.
2. The possibility that European countries will look for other options: European countries, for the most part, will not wait to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran to address—or at least limit—the impacts of the energy crisis they face, and which is expected to escalate in the coming months. The broad impact of Russia’s move to cut off gas supplies through Nord Stream 1 was to push European countries to seek out other options to deal with this crisis. These countries have already started to sign agreements and deals with other energy exporting countries, such as Algeria and Azerbaijan.
Waiting for Iranian oil to be pumped into international markets will not constitute leverage over European countries, or push them to speed up a deal with Iran that accommodates its conditions. Nor will it prompt them to overlook some of the core disputes, such as the issues of assurances for IAEA investigations of nuclear activities, which Iran has not declared at three main sites.
Here, this trend is based on the trilateral statement issued by Britain, Germany, and France on September 10, in which they stressed they have "serious doubts as to Iran’s intentions and commitment to a successful outcome on the JCPOA." The countries added they have reached "the limit of our flexibility" in trying to reach an agreement with Iran. This appears to be a message from the three European countries to Iran that it should not rely too much on the fact that the energy crisis will play a primary role in resolving the negotiations or reaching an agreement that does not accommodate those countries’ demands, especially regarding suspicions about the existence of a military side to Iran’s nuclear program.
3. Prolonged negotiations increase the chances of the agreement’s opponents: This trend takes a new approach based on the fact that the longer negotiations drag on, the more obstacles that could prevent a new deal increase. Undoubtedly, this is mainly due to the fact that there are no few parties opposed to the agreement. This includes domestic US forces—such as the Republican Party and some leading figures in the Democratic Party—alongside Israel and some other countries in the region that have reservations about the content of the possible agreement and the marginalization of other controversial issues such as the ballistic missile program and regional intervention.
In the view of this trend, recent events that took place in parallel with the stalled nuclear negotiations reveal that these forces are mobilizing on the ground and exerting strong pressure to obstruct a new agreement. In addition to accusing Iran of involvement in assassination attempts on US officials such as former National Security Advisor John Bolton and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Iran was accused of threatening Albania’s security by launching a cyberattack against some institutions within the country, which hosts the opposition Mujahedin-e-Khalq organization. All this does not appear coincidental, and it aims to underscore that the US is seeking to conclude a deal with a regime that uses violent policies in dealing with the opposition and regional and international opponents at the same time.
4. Mounting domestic pressure to adopt a more hardline policy: This trend does not discount the idea that prolonging negotiations and not reaching a nuclear agreement as soon as possible will lead to an escalation of pressure by domestic forces to adopt a tougher policy towards the nuclear negotiations. Failing to reach an agreement so far, in the view of these domestic forces, indicates that Western countries do not seem prepared to conclude a deal that includes Iran’s baseline conditions and demands. These parties have started not only to call to terminate the current negotiations, but also to withdraw from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and turn towards raising the level of nuclear activity to an unprecedented stage of escalation.
These parties have an interest in disrupting the agreement and the continued imposition of US sanctions, as they fill the gap caused by the withdrawal of foreign companies from investing in the Iranian market. Reaching an agreement and lifting US sanctions would pave the way for those countries to return to invest in Iran, causing economic losses for these parties.
In light of the above, it can be said that in the end Iran is already taking a risk by procrastinating in responding clearly to the draft presented by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, to enhance the chances of reaching a new agreement. Even if the current international and regional variables provide an opportunity to reach a new agreement, they may not exist in the next stage, in light of the extreme fluidity of the patterns of alliances and interactions taking place in regional and international arenas. In particular, notable field transformations in the Russia-Ukraine war will have direct repercussions for Iran’s calculations regarding possible paths for the negotiations in the coming stage.