The on-again, off-again conversations between Iran and Western powers over Tehran’s nuclear program jammed again due to disagreements between the two sides.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Iran for “killing a chance” to return to the negotiating table and insisted the talks were no longer a priority for the Biden administration.
Meanwhile, Iran seems ever closer to the possibility of actually building a nuclear weapon.
Inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency have said Iran had uranium enriched to 84%, just under the 90% needed for a bomb.
And General Mark Milley, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress in late March that Iran could have enough fissile material to make a bomb in “less than two weeksand a nuclear weapon itself within months.
Given these developments, is there still room for an agreement?
Tunnel vision on nuclear talks
Over the past two years, both the US and the European Union have made a resolute effort to revive the nuclear deal scrapped by then-US President Donald Trump in 2018, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). .
However, Western efforts have not yet borne fruit, Reportedly because of the Iranians’ “maximalist demands”, including the removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the US list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Nevertheless, the EU believes in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action remains “the only way” to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. Despite lowering the priority of the talks, the US is also unwilling to officially announce the death of the deal.
However, this tunnel vision seems to overlook the changes that have taken place since 2015, as well as the more general pattern of decision-making in Iran.
While proponents of the deal often argue that it has significantly curtailed Iran’s nuclear capabilities, Tehran’s nuclear program has expanded in just two years. And recently a news outlet affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards made it clear that Iran “cannot close its doors to the scientific methods of making a bomb for rational reasons”.
Now the big question is what Iran’s leaders will do next. The CIA Director, William Burns, said in February that he believes Iran’s Supreme Leader has not yet made a decision about building nuclear weapons.
So, what does the Iranian leadership think? To answer a question like this, the pattern of decision making in Iran’s history is a critical factor that has been widely ignored.
A history of painstaking deliberations
Since the 1979 revolution, Iranian leaders have shown a cautious and slow approach to making important decisions.
This protracted decision-making process in Iran is rooted in concern for the long-term survival of the regime, which has struggled with a range of internal and external threats over the past four decades.
For example, it took the Islamic Republic eight years to accept the ceasefire and peace talks with Iraq after their war in the 1980s.
In addition, it took Iranian authorities a decade to get ready for serious negotiations for a nuclear deal with the US and other world powers after the revelation of the country’s nuclear program in 2003.
Moreover, while Iran was first a “look to the Eastpolicy in the mid-2000s under then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it was only in 2015 that the country began to develop significant policies in this direction. This included military cooperation with Russia in both Syria and now Ukraine and a long-term economic, military and security agreement with China.
However, building nuclear weapons would certainly be the most drastic strategic decision by the Iranian leadership since the 1979 revolution.
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What can the West do?
So far, the slow decision-making process in the Iranian leadership has played a major role in hindering the weaponization of the nuclear program.
And this restriction on leadership could offer Western powers an opportunity given the ongoing protests currently plaguing the country.
The months of protests erupted after the death of a woman taken into custody by the morality police last year, hastening the decay of the regime’s legitimacy in the country and prompting new rounds of sanctions from the international community.
If Western countries abandon their obsession with reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and continue to support the Iranian people in their protests through diplomatic and economic pressure, it will send a strong signal to the Iranian leadership: the threats to the survival of the regime are not limited to military factors, but are also increasingly coming from the interior.
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It is important to note that during the protests, Iranian officials and hardliner media regularly stressed out the nuclear deal is not dead and negotiations are ongoing, even though most of them had previously opposed a deal with the West.
This indicates that the Islamic Republic would not be ready for the risks that the demise of the nuclear talks could entail, namely even more vehement public protests if it triggered another economic shock.
Therefore, the longer the balance of power between the Iranian people and the government remains unstable, the less likely it is that the regime will make a final decision on nuclear weapons in the short term.
Consequently, this will provide the West with powerful leverage to reach a more robust and effective agreement in the long run.