Talks to contain Iran's nuclear program are entering a dangerous phase. Image: Youtube

The chances of limiting Iran’s construction of nuclear weapons are disappearing.

Last week, Iran, the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China entered a seventh round of negotiations in Vienna. They closed Friday without progress on key issues engaging the US and Iran.

The main unrequited US desires: to return to the original deal designed to make Iranian nuclear programs peaceful but also to extend agreements out for 25 years.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian suggested the talks are only about lifting sanctions and that Biden must pledge that a future US administration can’t reimpose them.

More talks are set to open today (December 6) but Western participants are pessimistic. Iran, “backtracked on diplomatic progress made,” contended a joint statement issued by the UK, France and Germany.

“Iran is breaking with almost all of the difficult compromises crafted in months of tough negotiations,” they added. “Time is running out.”

That view was contested by China, whose Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin simply blamed the Americans for the standoff.

“The US, as the culprit of the Iranian nuclear crisis, should naturally remove all illegal unilateral sanctions on Iran and third parties including China,” Wang said. “On this basis, Iran will resume compliance with its commitment in the nuclear sector.”

The deadlock reflects the unstable legacy left by former US president Donald Trump, who in 2018 canceled American participation in the deal reached in 2015 by his predecessor Barack Obama.

Trump argued that the accord was neither tight enough nor covered a long enough period to assure Iran would not build a weapon within a decade or so.

This file handout picture released by Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization on November 4, 2019, shows atomic enrichment facilities at Natanz nuclear power plant, some 300 kilometers south of capital Tehran. Photo: AFP / Atomic Energy Organization of Iran

He then imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran.

Iran, angered by the pullout and by the unwillingness of most other countries to override sanctions, started producing more highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium than allowed under the old agreement.

The new enhancement projects have brought the Islamic Republic near to becoming a nuclear “threshold state” capable of making an atom bomb.

There are contradictory pressures on the US and Iranian governments to show both strength in these negotiations and yet display a willingness to compromise.

Biden’s foreign policy prestige suffers from his mishandling of the messy military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Being seen to permit Iran to get closer to possessing atomic weaponry would feed criticism that he is helplessly weak.

But Biden also has to make at least a good faith effort to reach a deal even against Iranian uranium enhancement steps.

Michael O’Hanlon, a researcher at Washington’s Brookings Institution said Washington thinks it has to show, “Russia, China, and even our European allies that we have tried every last thing.

“If we don’t get those countries convinced, they will not apply sanctions,” he concluded.

Iran’s new government is also eager to show macho determination. New President Ebrahim Raisi has slowed down talks while the nuclear program barrels ahead, a tactic cheered by hardline fundamentalist cadres and militarists.

Yet, Raisi is also under pressure to fix the sorry state of Iran’s inflation-burdened, high unemployment-hit economy. Oil production has declined by half in five years.

Ebrahim Raisi’s election as Iranian president was marred by a low turnout and the banning of moderate opponents. Photo: AFP

Along that line, Iranians may believe they have an out if talks fail, contended Ali Fatollah-Nejad, a German-Iranian political scientist. Tehran will try to balance “US pressure through regional trade and a geopolitical alignment with non-Western great powers, such as China and Russia,” he predicted.

Iranian negotiators have met separately with Russia and Chinese diplomats while refusing to have the Americans attend the Vienna talks in person. The US negotiators communicate by video connection.

Commodity analysts estimate that already China has been importing more than 500,000 barrels of Iranian crude a day for the past three months.

“Iran has been trying to win its own teammates,” concluded Asif Shuja of the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute. “And the US is also doing the same.”

States in the region on the outside looking in are making their own calculations. Persian Gulf governments have opened talks with Iran to ease tensions, in case talks lead to some form of US-Iranian détente.

More bellicose signals are coming from Israel. On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet told his cabinet that talks are only a cover while Iran steps up enrichment of uranium.

“I call on every country negotiating with Iran in Vienna to take a strong line and make it clear to Iran that they cannot enrich uranium and negotiate at the same time,” Bennett said.

Earlier in the week, Israel’s Foreign Minister Benny Gantz warned, “There will be a point in time when the world, the region, and the State of Israel will have no choice but to act.”

The specifics of the act were left unsaid, but there are violent precedents. In 1981, Israel bombed a nuclear facility in Iraq and in 2007 one in Syria.

Last year, it concocted a remote, satellite-controlled machine gun that, hidden on a pickup truck at the side of an Iranian road, shot up and assassinated a top Iranian nuclear scientist.

Israel is also reportedly working on bombs that can penetrate highly fortified, underground uranium enrichment facilities.

A handout satellite image shows a general view of the Natanz nuclear facility after a fire, in Natanz, Iran July 8, 2020. Photo: Handout/Maxar

According to the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has put the Fordow uranium fuel enrichment plant back into operation during the recent talks. It had been put out of operation under the 2015 agreement.

The increased production at Fordow, whose works are dug deep inside a mountain, allows Iran “to go much faster and increase (enrichment) volumes significantly,” said IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi.

Against that backdrop, the nuclear talks are sounding more like a countdown.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.