Goodnight Vienna (11)

Omri Ceren continues his series of reports by email from Vienna:

Good Monday from Vienna, where we’re now into day 17 of the current round of negotiations and yet summer continues to surprise us.

The JPOA is again set to expire at midnight after having been extended a few days ago. Just about everyone is saying that another short-term extension is not being considered. Of course the parties always say that, until they don’t, but this time the comments feel a little bit different. The Europeans could not be more frustrated – they don’t understand why the Americans and the Iranians can’t get their nonsense together – and the Russians and Chinese actually have things they need to take care of. Rouhani was even scheduled to speak on TV today, though the Iranians are now saying he’ll wait until there’s a formal announcement.

The conventional wisdom is that negotiations will wrap up today and a ceremony will be held tomorrow.

As for what the parties are still talking about: Reuters has been saying all week that sanctions remain unresolved, and today the wire piled on with “among the biggest sticking points in the past week has been Iran’s insistence that a United Nations Security Council arms embargo and ban on its ballistic missile program dating from 2006 be lifted immediately… Other problematic issues are access for inspectors to military sites in Iran” [1]. The Associated Press report from this morning also identified those two areas as key disagreements, and added that there are complications due to a new Iranian demand “that any U.N. Security Council resolution approving the nuclear deal be written in a way that stops describing Iran’s nuclear activities as illegal” [2].

As far as the UNSCR gambit goes, it seems like a not-very-sophisticated attempt to craft language that would later be used to undermine the IAEA’s authority to inspect Iranian facilities. The Iranians have successfully pulled off similar tricks throughout the talks: they inserted vague language into Geneva that they interpreted as a right to enrich, and they did the same thing at Lausanne so they could later claim that the arms embargo has to be lifted. U.S. negotiators have proven less than adept in detecting how and when the Iranians are laying traps for them.

As far as the arms embargo goes, there are multiple Iranian motives. The most obvious is that the Iranians are engaged in four hot wars across the region against traditional American allies, and they’re eager to purchase Russian weapons to fight in those wars. David Ignatius to MSNBC this morning: “Israel will see that as a direct threat, as it will arm the people Israel is fighting. The Sunni Arabs, as you said, will see this as a major capitulation by the U.S.” The more subtle reason has to do with how the Iranians conduct their illicit nuclear trade. The Iranians have an interest in weakening international restrictions against arms transfers in in general, because they then use newly-legitimized procurement channels to violate whatever restrictions remain. I’m [linking] below an article published yesterday by Benjamin Weinthal – a Berlin-based fellow for Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) – on how Iran has been violating UNSC nuclear sanctions over the last few months:

While U.S.-led world powers hold talks with Iran in Vienna to curb Tehran’s illicit nuclear weapons program, the Islamic Republic’s spies have been seeking atomic and missile technology in neighboring Germany as recently as last month, according to German intelligence sources… Iran has a long history of illegally obtaining nuclear technology from within Germany and transporting it in ways that circumvent international sanctions. German companies have shown an eagerness to legally tap the Iranian market, though none are accused of abetting illegality in the latest efforts by Iran.

Of course there’s also what ought to be the major diplomatic scandal of the Iranians cheating on nuclear sanctions even as nuclear negotiations continue [reported by Benjamin Weinthal in the linked story]. But the Iranians have been caught cheating throughout the talks: they’ve violated UNSC resolutions in exactly this way and they’ve violated the JPOA by busting through oil caps, testing advanced centrifuges, and failing to convert excess enriched gas into dioxide. In literally every case the Obama administration has found a reason to publicly play Iran’s lawyer by spinning away those violations.