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Iran Is Misreading the War in Ukraine

As the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program go down to the wire in Vienna, the regime in Tehran seems to believe its hand has been strengthened by Russia’s assault on Ukraine. The Biden administration, having announced it is prepared to walk away rather than submit to the Islamic Republic’s demands, will soon have its resolve tested.

For the best part of a year, the U.S., along with Russia, China and the European trio of Germany, France and the U.K., have been attempting to resuscitate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal they struck with Tehran in 2015. But Iran has been stalling, bogging down the talks with absurd demands even as it races to enrich uranium to levels ever closer to weapons-grade.

Iran claims, implausibly, that its nuclear activities are entirely peaceful. But it is now enriching uranium to levels that serve no peaceful purpose. This has given the latest round of talks in Vienna an extra impetus: Western negotiators worry that further enrichment will make their discussions moot. They are anxious, too, that the open hostility between Russia and the West over Ukraine will hamper cooperation in the talks.  

President Joe Biden, who has made the revival of the JCPOA a high foreign-policy priority, has made several conciliatory gestures toward the theocratic state in the hope of a breakthrough. He has looked the other way as Iran has defied U.S. sanctions to sell oil — especially to China — and has offered Tehran relief from some sanctions.

In addition to talking softly, he has also brandished a big stick by threatening fresh sanctions if the talks in Vienna fail.

But the Iranians, who have refused to negotiate directly with the U.S., believe Biden is bluffing. Tehran continues to demand commitments it knows the U.S. president can’t give, such as a guarantee that future occupants of the White House won’t rescind the deal as his predecessor did in 2018. And it wants all economic restraints removed, including sanctions tied to its human-rights violations and its ballistic-missile program, measures that remained in place even after the 2015 deal was struck.

The regime seems to think its bargaining position has been bolstered by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has put the blame for the conflict entirely on the U.S. and its allies, reckons it leaves Biden in a double bind — the U.S. president must diffuse a huge geopolitical conflagration even as he tried to head off an economic crisis resulting from spiking oil and gas prices.

Biden, so the thinking in Tehran goes, must now be that much more eager for a deal in Vienna: It would take one geopolitical problem off his hands, and the removal of restraints on Iranian oil and gas supplies would soften prices. (Iran has the world’s second-largest reserves of natural gas and fourth-largest reserves of oil.) Conversely, the collapse of nuclear negotiations would allow Iran to accelerate toward the status of a nuclear threshold state, akin to Japan and South Korea — which have no nuclear weapons but the ability to quickly make them — creating a whole new security crisis in the Middle East for the U.S. to confront.   

It is especially telling that the latest sticking point in negotiations is Iran’s demand that the International Atomic Energy Agency halt its investigation into Tehran’s past nuclear activities. This suggests the regime has something to hide. The agency’s inspectors are currently investigating the origin of uranium traces found at Iranian sites that the regime had previously failed to declare. Iran is refusing to cooperate with the inspection, and could face strong censure at a key IAEA board meeting next Monday. 

The Western negotiators in Vienna rejected Iran’s demand, saying the IAEA is an independent body that must be allowed to play its role as nuclear watchdog whether or not the nuclear deal is revived. “Safeguards are a fundamental part of the non-proliferation system and are separate,” British negotiator Stephanie Al-Qaq wrote on Twitter. “We will always reject any attempt to compromise IAEA independence.”

What next? If Iran sticks to its demands, the negotiations can go no further. Biden has said he will then pursue “other options.” That must include ending the laxity that has characterized his administration’s imposition of existing sanctions as well as imposing new ones to inflict even more punishment on Tehran. Having demonstrated an abundance of good faith in trying to secure a deal, Biden can now count on the Europeans to follow his lead.

For its part, Tehran may find that the war in Ukraine is not quite the ace up its sleeve. President Vladimir Putin has no interest in having another nuclear-armed near-neighbor, and the Russian president knows that a nuclear deal that opens the spigots of Iranian oil and gas would undermine his ability to blackmail the West into letting him have his way.

The Iranians have it the wrong way around: It is Biden who should be calling Khamenei’s bluff.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

How Do You Replace Millions of Barrels of Russian Oil a Day? Javier Blas

Can Iran’s Oil Save American Motorists?: Julian Lee

In the Nuclear Face-Off With Iran, Biden Just Blinked: Bobby Ghosh

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. A former editor in chief of the Hindustan Times, he was managing editor of Quartz and Time magazine’s international editor.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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