Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 for reviving the agreement for limiting Iran’s nuclear program are expected to resume on November 29.
Last year during his presidential campaign President Biden said multiple times that his administration will quickly rejoin the JCPOA, but over a year after his election, that has yet to materialize. This is mostly due to the U.S. refusing to lift all the sanctions that the Trump administration had imposed on Iran, although Iran’s internal political dynamics, and the power struggle between the administration of former President Hassan Rouhani and the hardliners, also played role.
Both Iran and the United States have “cards” to play in order to extract concessions from the other side in the upcoming negotiations.
For the Biden administration the most important card is the dire state of Iran’s economy that is reeling from the tough U.S. sanctions, as well as deep economic corruption that has emptied the national treasury, with the government running a budget shortfall of tens of billions of dollars. The government’s own statistics indicate that up to 30 million Iranians, out of a population of 85 million, live under the poverty line. Annual inflation is around 60 percent, and the rial, Iran’s official currency, continues to lose value against major foreign currencies. Thus, Iran needs relief from the U.S. sanctions, and the Biden administration is keenly aware of this.
Despite the dire state of its economy, Iran is not without any political cards. Since 2019, a year after Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, when Iran ended its “strategic patience” and began, in accordance with Article 35 of the JCPOA, distancing itself from some of its nuclear obligations, it has made significant advances in three key areas of its uranium enrichment program.
According to the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has been installing and using a small number of advanced centrifuges that it is not allowed to use under the JCPOA. Iran has also produced 210 kg of uranium at 19.75 percent enrichment — which is the fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor that produces medical isotopes for about one million patients annually — and 25 kg at 60 percent. Both are at levels of enrichment higher than the average 3.65 percent allowed by the JCPOA.
Iran has also produced 200 g of uranium metal (UM) from enriched uranium at 19.75 percent level. If the UM is made of uranium enriched at 90 percent, it can be used in making the core of a nuclear weapon. But, if the enrichment level is lower, once converted to the UM, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for Iran to convert it back to regular enriched uranium to increase its level of enrichment.
All of these gains are reversible. The advanced centrifuges can be removed and stored; the uranium with higher levels of enrichment can be stored and safeguarded by the IAEA, and any UM produced with enrichment lower than the bomb grade is in fact a good step for nuclear non-proliferation. Iran does, however, gain experience, knowledge, and insights into the elements of the three important areas, hence strengthening the indigenous nature of its nuclear program. Through worrying to the Biden administration and its European allies, the advancements do strengthen Iran’s hands in the upcoming negotiation.
Although they all distrust the United States, Iran’s hardliners are not unified. Their most extreme faction, but also the smallest one, for which the daily Kayhan and its managing editor Hossein Shariatmadari act as the mouthpiece, advocate leaving Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and ending cooperation with the IAEA. Also included in this faction is Fereydoun Abbasi Davani, Director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran during the Ahmadinejad administration, a retired IRGC officer, and currently a deputy in the Majles, Iran’s parliament. He escaped an assassination attempt by Israel in 2011. After Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who led Iran’s nuclear program for 20 years, was assassinated by Israel, Abbasi Davani called for terminating any cooperation with the IAEA.
This faction believes that a Republican might win the U.S. presidential election in 2024, and will once again take the United States out of the JCPOA, even if Iran reaches an agreement with the Biden administration. Thus, this faction has concluded, there is no point in returning to the JCPOA. It also counts on China and the strategic agreement that it signed with Iran last May, as well as Iran’s admission to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in September of which both China and Russia are members, to bail Iran out.
Iran’s new chief nuclear negotiator is Ali Bagheri Kani, its deputy foreign minister and a hardliner. He belongs to what is referred to in Iran as the beit-e rahbari or the Leader’s abode, the inner circle of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, and his son Mojtaba Khamenei who played a leading role in Raeisi’s rise to the presidency.
Bagheri’s brother, Mesbah-Olhoda Bagheri Kani is married to Hoda Khamenei, the Ayatollah’s daughter. Born in 1967, Bagheri received his education at Imam Sadegh University in Tehran that was founded by his late uncle, former Prime Minister Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, and his own father, Ayatollah Mohammad Bagher Bagheri Kani who wields influence from behind the scenes. The university has been producing graduates that are ideologically loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei, with 10 of its graduates currently serving as senior officials in the Raeisi administration.
Bagheri has been a harsh critic of the JCPOA, believing that Iran gave up too much and received very little. After the JCPOA was signed in July 2015, Bagheri began attacking the agreement, and the fact that the Trump administration exited the JCPOA and re-imposed the harsh sanctions only strengthened his and the extremist block’s resolve.
The relative pragmatists among Iran’s hardliners believe that it is imperative to reach an agreement with the United States. They fear that if the sanctions are not lifted, the economy will further deteriorate, provoking the people, especially the lower class, to revolt on a scale much larger than the bloody demonstration of November 2019 over the sudden increase in the price of gasoline. But this faction is also worried that if Iran makes too many concessions, the hardliners’ social base of support, which has already shrunk considerably, will weaken further.
The government controlled daily news outlet Iran reported on November 14 that in the upcoming negotiations Bagheri will demand that Washington lift all the sanctions imposed on Iran, pay compensation for the damage that Trump’s sanctions inflicted upon Iran, and guarantee that no future U.S. administration will impose the sanctions again. Bagheri will also declare that Iran refuses to negotiate over its missile program and its Middle East policy, and that before Iran returns to its obligations, it must be able to export oil and receive the proceeds.
While this may be posturing, the fact remains that the Biden administration missed its chance to reach an agreement with the Rouhani administration last spring and, with their rigid and ideological view of the world, Iran’s hardliners will be much tougher to reach an agreement with.
Both sides need to be flexible and realistic and be prepared to make concessions. Otherwise, it will likely no longer be possible to revive the JCPOA.
Muhammad Sahimi is a professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. For the past two decades he has published extensively on Iran's political developments and its nuclear program. He was a founding lead political analyst for the website PBS/Frontline: Tehran Bureau, and has also published extensively in major websites and print media.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.