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The last few days saw mounting drama in the ongoing tension between Iran and the western hemisphere. With no clear agenda in sight, Enrique Mora, the European negotiator mediating between the United States and Iran, landed in Tehran this week to inquire about the meaning of “soon,” which is when Iran would like to resume the Vienna negotiations. At the same time, patience is running thin in Washington as the Biden administration signals it is starting to prepare for Plan B. This state of confusion and uncertainty might be exactly what Iran wants. 

This week and prior to Mora’s visit Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saied Khatibzadeh expanded the scope of the expected talks to include Afghanistan and relations between Iran and Brussels. Interestingly enough, the European envoy is coming with only one item in mind: an actual date for the new round of the Vienna negotiations instead of the Middle Eastern “soon” Iranian officials keep giving.  

This constant forestalling seems to be one of the pillars of Iranian diplomacy and is by no means new. Yet, American and European officials are starting to strongly signal that the window for negotiations won’t last forever. Tensions increased this week as Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid stated in a joint meeting with Secretary of State Tony Blinken and the UAE Foreign Minister that there “are times when nations use force.” 

But Iran’s forestalling might have an end in sight. The Iranian authorities recently decided to keep the negotiations’ file under the Foreign Ministry with the supervision of the National Security Council, which means their internal discussions are settling on the Iranian future agenda, which was confirmed by the Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian during his visit to Beirut last week. 

But as Iran avoids going back to the negotiations table in Vienna, it has been engaging in discreet talks with Saudi Arabia. So far, Iran and the Saudi Kingdom have concluded four rounds of talks about resuming diplomatic ties and ending the war in Yemen. While Iran indicated it views their talks as successful, Saudi officials insist they are in an “exploratory stage,” and are still doubting whether Iran will provide assurances and acceptable commitments. 

No one seems to be certain of what Iran wants or is ready to offer in either the Vienna or Saudi talks. So far, the Iranians insist on making impossible demands, such as a guarantee that the US won’t withdraw again from the deal. EU officials told Iran that cannot be guaranteed.  

Moreover, Iran insists on a return to the 2015 JCPOA as it was and the lifting of all sanctions. The demand to return to an unchanged JCPOA means Iran is attempting to prevent any chance of future negotiations about its ballistic missile program or of its destabilizing regional strategy. As for the sanctions, thanks to the Trump administration, it is near impossible to lift all sanctions at once given the legal labyrinth around them. 

Iran is, in effect, preconditioning negotiations on demands it very well knows cannot be met. This is exactly what French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre implied when she said that through actions and statements, the Iranians muddle their intentions. 

“While refusing to negotiate, Iran creates facts on the ground that further complicate the return to the JCPOA. It is therefore in a context of crisis and at a critical moment for the future of the nuclear agreement that this trip by…Mora to Tehran takes place,” Legendre said. 

But will the opaqueness of Iranian intentions force the Biden administration to give up on returning to a nuclear deal as soon as possible and at any cost? Certainly, Secretary Blinken’s recent statements about “other options” indicate so, albeit ambiguously, but we shouldn’t expect the administration to give up easily. In the meantime, it seems like certain key figures within the Biden administration are prepared to simply cave and accept a nuclear Iran; a return to a deal was one of the Biden campaign’s central promises. 

At a meeting with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Wednesday, October 13, the administration’s special envoy to Iran, Robert Malley, said that America and its allies must brace for a world in which Iran “doesn’t have constraints on its nuclear program.” 

 This is an example of appeasement that would only make Neville Chamberlain swell with pride. 

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Hussein Aboubakr Mansour

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