As a result of the nuclear threat, stakeholders in the nuclear talks are again exploring putting differences with Iran in the "fridge", and cutting a provisional deal to revive the 2015 deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the P5+1 countries – the UN Security Council's five permanent members; the US, China, France, Russia, the UK; plus Germany – and Iran.
Israel is strongly present in this equation. Recently, Israel hinted at conducting a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities if a deal is signed, whose terms are not in the interests of Israeli national security.
The European states are anxious about an Iranian-Israeli confrontation and the failure of the Vienna talks, and the possible implications of their failure, with regard to nuclear, energy and military repercussions.
The Biden administration is coming under pressure, Israeli and domestic, which restricts its ability to agree to Iran’s persistent conditions, such as delisting its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terror group, or providing Iran with guarantees that the US will not unilaterally withdraw again from the nuclear deal in the future, as Donald Trump had done in the past. These steps are beyond the ability and mandate of the Biden administration, as some would be within the powers of Congress alone.
For its part, the Islamic Republic of Iran is caught between its ruling ideology and the centrality of the IRGC in its economy, foreign policy, regional behaviour and its need to sell its oil – especially at a time when Europe is in dire need for alternative oil supplies – before the embargo on Russian oil and gas goes into effect at the end of the year.
Provisional solutions are being discussed again, to capitalise on what has been agreed so far, and to freeze contentious issues to deal with later. Even with this approach there are obstacles and pitfalls. Yet, it is clear that a final grand bargain – which crucially requires a US-Iranian deal – has become nearly impossible, prompting this search for provisional agreements.
In the meantime, the Iranian leadership is allowing itself room for constructive manoeuvring, coupled with threats of retaliation. Iran is showing flexibility in the region, affirming the importance of continuing talks with Saudi Arabia, after the conclusion of a fifth unpublicised round, and expressing willingness for a public session. Iran also appears willing to not obstruct the demarcation of Lebanese-Israeli maritime borders as a goodwill gesture, but also to highlight the Iranian influence over such issues that are crucial to the US and Israel.
Strategically, Iran’s flexibility is represented by the possibility of agreeing to defer the issue of the IRGC, focusing instead on getting the sanctions lifted in order to sell oil and relieve popular pressure on the regime. In other words, suspending the regime’s political ideology provisionally serves its interests and its survival through economic recovery. Oil revenues are crucial for reinforcing its ideology in the long run so there is no harm in prioritising them for now. This is part of Iran's constructive manoeuvring policy.
However, Iran’s flexibility will not be open-ended. It is organically linked to the outcome of the Vienna talks, whose bottom line is lifting the sanctions on Iran. It is also linked to the Israeli reaction to the putative Vienna deal. For this reason, Tehran is sending out both escalatory and conciliatory messages at the same time and making preparations.
Israel is giving cause for anxiety not just to Iran but also to Europe and Russia. Relations between Russia and Israel now face a crisis, after Moscow decided to outsource Syria to Iran and exchanged warnings with Israel. Moscow has since sought to limit the damage, after Israel said there could be serious political consequences for Russian policies targeting Israel in Syria, Ukraine and Russia itself, as Moscow moved against the activities of the Jewish Agency, a prominent group that facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel.
This week, an Israeli delegation went to the Russian capital for the first time since the crisis between the two countries started, following a Russian ban on the agency. Israel said the closure of the agency’s offices in Russia is a serious matter that will have implications for the bilateral relationship. This was coupled by a leaked list of possible Israeli responses, while Israel’s Defence Minister Benny Gantz revealed Russian anti-aircraft batteries had fired at Israeli planes during a sortie over Syria in May.
More importantly, Israel sent warnings to Russia, the European powers and the US through unofficial channels, saying it was ready to conduct strikes on Iranian nuclear sites if these states sign up to an agreement in Vienna. This is a new development, because there is an Israeli threat linked to signing the nuclear deal.
Europe is feeling a nuclear and energy terror as a result of Israel’s escalation and threat of direct action against Iran, with or without America’s consent. Israel has made it clear to the European states that freeing Iran from sanctions under a deal in Vienna could enable Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, a red line for Israel. Israel has also expressed distrust in promises of the Biden administration and European promises to not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.
The nuclear terror felt in Europe has two aspects: One would be for the failure of the nuclear talks to lead to the intensification of the Iranian nuclear programme. And another would be the Israeli response, which could turn the shadow war between Iran and Israel into a direct, conventional one on Europe's doorsteps. Then there are the existential energy worries. In the wake of the decision to embargo Russian oil and gas, Europe needs an alternative that could very well be provided by Iran, should a nuclear deal be agreed.
For all these reasons, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, has engaged Iran looking for a way to resuscitate the Vienna talks through provisional arrangements that defer contentious issues and cement what has already been agreed, in the service of Iranian, European and US interests. Mr Borell is seeking a compromise on behalf of the EU, and to some extent, the US administration.
Iran has not closed the door to a compromise because it needs the money and also because it takes seriously the Israeli determination to carry out military action against it. Iran realises the cost of war would be high despite its own escalation and military preparations against Israel.
Tehran knows that Russia is unable and unready to go to war on its side against Israel. It knows that in the event the situation devolves into an Iranian-Israeli military standoff, the Biden administration will not able to continue negotiations. It knows that in the event of war with Israel, the US will have to side with Israel, a strategic alliance that is also a US domestic issue.
Ultimately, navigating between constructive manoeuvring and a rude confrontation is a thorny affair, especially in the midst of growing Israeli turbulence, despite the confused US and European expeditions in the waters of the Middle East.