Opinion | National Security

Iran thinks it has the upper hand in Vienna — here's why it doesn't

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

When nuclear talks between Iran and the five remaining parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) resumed on Monday, the Iranian delegation returned to the negotiating table in Vienna with newfound confidence. 

Since the end of the last round of talks in June, the Ebrahim Raisi government has constructed new centrifuges and enriched at least 39 pounds of uranium at the 60 percent level of purity. On Wednesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran is using machines with advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium to up to 20 percent purity. On top of that, it has managed to circumvent Trump administration-era sanctions: In the last three months, oil sales to China have doubled compared to the same period last year. 

Indeed, President Joe Biden's domestic detractors and U.S. allies in the Middle East, particularly Israel, fear Iran's recent nuclear advances provide the country with growing leverage. A recent report even suggests that the Biden administration, having grown weary of Iran approaching enrichment levels solely needed for a nuclear weapons program, might settle for an interim deal that proves considerably weaker than the JCPOA. There is the common view that the Iranian regime has "Biden's nuclear number".

Such perceptions are not only misguided but dangerous. The renewed talks can only be successful if Iran does not overplay its hand. Rather than compelling the U.S. government to make concessions, maximalist Iranian demands might cause the United States to walk away from negotiations and resort to a containment strategy instead, with all the potential risks of escalation. 

In recent weeks, much has been said about Iran's nuclear gambit, negotiation strategy and long-term goals. Much less has been said about the Biden administration's approach towards the resumption of talks in Vienna. It is true that U.S. administration officials have repeatedly stressed their belief in diplomacy and a return to the JCPOA. A preference for a diplomatic solution, however, does not make the Biden administration desperate for one. 

Oil sanctions and the freezing of assets are hurting Iran with little to no cost to the United States. Since then-President Donald Trump's reimposition of unilateral U.S. sanctions, the Iranian economy has suffered considerable losses. At its lowest point, Iranian oil exports fell to 200,000 barrels per day, only a fraction of the 2.8 million barrels per day Iran exported before the Trump administration left the JCPOA in 2018. By evading sanctions, Iran has managed to export close to 800,000 barrels per day to China alone in recent months, but the U.S. government is watching. If talks fail, the Biden can tighten the screws, sending Iranian oil exports into a nosedive one more time. The balance of leverage between the two countries clearly favors the United States. The Raisi government cannot live up to its campaign promises if U.S. sanctions remain in place.

It is quite likely that Iran's dramatic nuclear advances have made an impression on the Biden administration. By closing ranks with its allies, however, the Biden team is signaling to Iran that building advanced centrifuges and enriching near-weapons-grade uranium does not only pose a problem to the United States. Striking fear in its neighbors' capitals is an awkward byproduct of Iran's U.S.-focused nuclear brinkmanship, especially for a government like Raisi's, which has tried to mend relations with regional actors, particularly Saudi ArabiaEven China and Russia, Iran's most likely allies among the JCPOA signatories, are losing patience with Iranian intransigence at the negotiation table.

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, however botched, reveals an essential truth: To the United States, engagement in the region, be it military or diplomatic, is a choice. To Iran and its neighbors, it is a necessity mandated by geography. Although the United States would much prefer a non-nuclear Iran to a nuclear Iran, the latter would be a more immediate threat to Iran's neighbors. The Biden administration can afford to develop a plan B in the event that indirect negotiations in Vienna fail.

Many current administration officials like Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Special Envoy Robert Malley were directly involved in negotiating the JCPOA. While they may be personally invested in the deal and its success, Iran's post-deal behavior - that is its continued support for regional proxies and development of ballistic missiles - cannot have escaped their attention. Indeed, Washington's insistence on a "longer and stronger agreement" that would address Iranian actions beyond the nuclear realm - not too different from Trump's talk of a new deal with Iran - indicates as much. Only a stubborn optimist would expect Iran to change its ways if a mutual return to the JCPOA were to happen. 

The  Biden administration's insistence on follow-on negotiations to reach a "longer and stronger" deal with Iran has been conspicuously absent from its statements in recent weeks, which might be another indicator that the Biden team had begun bracing itself for a breakdown of negotiations. France, for one, has already announced that it would consider the JCPOA devoid of substance if the upcoming negotiations appeared to be a "sham."

No one can predict the outcome of this round of talks. If the Biden team settles for anything less than the original JCPOA, a possibility much feared by U.S. allies, we will know it has not played its cards right. Despite all the talk about growing Iranian leverage, it is the U.S. that remains in the driver's seat.

Payam Ghalehdar is a fellow at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and the Centre for International Security at the Hertie School. He is the author of "The Origins of Overthrow," an inquiry into the sources of U.S.-imposed regime change. Twitter: @PayamGhalehdar.

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