Few people, apart from specialists, may have heard of the JCPOA Joint Commission. That’s the group in charge of a Sisyphean task: the attempt to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal through a series of negotiations in Vienna. 

The Iranian negotiating team was back in Vienna on April 26, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi. Shadowplay starts with the fact the Iranians negotiate with the other members of the P+1 – Russia, China, France, United Kingdom and Germany – but not directly with the United States.

That’s quite something. After all, it was the Donald Trump administration that blew up the JCPOA, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. There is an American delegation in Vienna, but they only talk with the Europeans.

Shadow play goes turbo when every Viennese coffee table knows about Tehran’s red lines: Either it’s back to the original JCPOA, as it was agreed in Vienna in 2015 and then ratified by the UN Security Council, or nothing.  

Araghchi, mild-mannered and polite, has had to go on the record once again to stress that Tehran will leave if the talks veer towards “bullying,” time-wasting or even a step-by-step ballroom dance, which is time-wasting under different terminology.

Neither flat out optimistic nor pessimistic, he remains, let us say, cautiously upbeat, at least in public: “We are not disappointed and we will do our job. Our positions are very clear and firm. The sanctions must be lifted, verified – and then Iran must return to its commitments.”

So, at least in thesis, the debate is still on. Araghchi: “There are two types of US sanctions against Iran: first, categorized or so-called divisional sanctions, such as oil, banking and insurance, shipping, petrochemical, building and automobile sanctions; and, second, sanctions against real and legal individuals.”

“Second” is the key issue. There’s absolutely no guarantee the US Congress will lift most or even a significant portion of these sanctions. Everyone in Washington knows it – and the American delegation knows it.

When the Foreign Ministry in Tehran, for instance, says that 60% or 70% has been agreed upon, that’s code for lifting of divisional sanctions. When it comes to “second,” Araghchi has to be evasive: “There are complex issues in this area that we are examining.”   

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) talks with his deputy Seyed Abbas Araghchi as they wait for the arrival of the Japanese foreign minister in Tehran on June 12, 2019. Photo: AFP / Atta Kenare

Now compare it with the assessment of informed Iranian insiders in Washington such as nuclear policy expert Seyed Hossein Mousavian. They’re more like pessimistic realists.

That takes into consideration the non-negotiable red lines established by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei himself. Plus non-stop pressure by Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are all JCPOA-averse.

But then there’s extra shadow play. Israeli intel has already notified the security cabinet that a deal most certainly will be reached in Vienna. After all, the narrative of a successful deal is already being constructed as a foreign policy victory by the Biden-Harris administration – or, as cynics prefer, Obama-Biden 3.0.

Meanwhile, Iranian diplomacy remains on overdrive. Foreign Minister Zarif is visiting Qatar and Iraq, and has already met with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim al Thani.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, virtually at the end of his term before June presidential elections, always goes back to the same point: no more US sanctions; Iran’s verification; then Iran will return to its “nuclear obligations.”  

The Foreign Ministry has even released a quite detailed fact sheet once again stressing the need to remove “all sanctions imposed, re-imposed and re-labeled since January 20, 2017.”

The window of opportunity for a deal won’t last long. Hardliners in Tehran couldn’t care less. At least 80% of Tehran members of Parliament are now hardliners.

The next president most certainly will be a hardliner. Team Rouhani’s efforts have been branded a failure since the onset of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Hardliners are already in post-JCPOA mode. 

That fateful Fateh

What none of the actors in the shadow play can admit is that the revival of the JCPOA pales compared with the real issue: the power and reach of Iranian missiles.

In the original 2015 negotiations in Vienna, Obama-Biden 2.0 did everything in their power to include missiles in the deal.

Every grain of sand in the Negev desert knows that Israel will go no-holds-barred to retain its nuclear weapon primacy in the Middle East. Via a spectacular kabuki, the fact that Israel is a nuclear power happens to remain “invisible” to most of world public opinion.      

Dimona nuclear power plant in the southern Israeli Negev desert, photographed September 8, 2002. The complex was described by Israel as various types of non-nuclear facilities until then Prime Minister David Ben Gurion said in December 1960 that it was a nuclear research center for ‘peaceful purposes.’ In 1986, a technician at the plant revealed to the London Sunday Times that it was used to produce nuclear arms. Israel refuses to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. On April 22, 2021, a Syrian missile exploded 30 km from Dimona. Photo: AFP / Thomas Coex

While Khamenei has issued a fatwa clearly stating that producing, stockpiling and using weapons of mass destruction – nuclear included – is haram (banned by Islam), Israel’s leadership feels free to order stunts such as this month’s sabotage, likely via Mossad, of the (civilian) Iranian nuclear complex at Natanz.   

The head of Iran’s Parliament Energy Committee, Fereydoun Abbasi Davani, even accused Washington and London of being accomplices to the sabotage of Natanz, as they arguably supplied intel to Tel Aviv.

Yet now a lone missile is literally exploding a great deal of the shadow play.

On April 22, in the dead of night before dawn, a Syrian missile exploded only 30 kilometers away from the ultra-sensitive Israeli nuclear reactor of Dimona. The official – and insistent – Israeli spin: This was an “errant.” 

Well, not really.

Here – third video from the top – is footage of the quite significant explosion. Also significantly, Tel Aviv remained absolutely mum when it came to offering a missile proof of ID.  Was it an old Soviet 1967 SA-5? Or, rather more likely, a 2012 Iranian Fateh-110 short range surface-to-surface, manufactured in Syria as the M-600, and also possessed by Hezbollah?  

A Fateh family tree can be seen in the chart below. The estimable Elijah Magnier has posed some very good questions about the Dimona near-hit. I complemented his contribution with a quite enlightening discussion with physicists, with input by a military intel expert.

The Fateh-110 operates as a classic ballistic missile, until the moment the warhead starts maneuvering to evade ABM defenses. Precision is up to 10 meters, nominally 6 meters. So it hit exactly where it was supposed to hit. Israel officially confirmed that the missile was not intercepted – after a trajectory of roughly 266 kilometers.

This opens a brand new can of worms. It implies that the performance of the much-hyped and recently upgraded Iron Dome is far from air tight – and talk about a euphemism. The Fateh flew so low that Iron Dome could not identify it.

The inevitable conclusion is that this was a message-warning combo. From Damascus. With a personal stamp from Bashar al-Assad, who would have had to sign off on such a sensitive missile launch. A message-warning delivered via Iranian missile technology fully available to the Axis of Resistance – proving that regional actors have serious stealth capability. 

It’s crucial to remember that when Tehran dispatched a volley of deliberately older Fateh-313 versions at the US base Ayn al-Assad in Iraq, as a response to the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020, the American radars went blank.

Iranian missile technology as top strategic deterrence. Now that’s the shadow play that turns Vienna into a sideshow.