The UN General Assembly is a unique opportunity to make policy. But not so much in the plenary hall as in the corridors and adjoining offices. That is where the big decisions are made at this type of event. In the absence of understandings or agreements, a message is valid and carries weight because of the very symbolism of the location. And the Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, wanted to take advantage of the scenario.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran will return to the negotiating table. We are going through the Vienna files and, very soon, Iran's negotiations with the 'four plus one' countries will start again," Amirabdollahian said on Thursday on the sidelines of the Assembly, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in 2015 by Iran and Western powers plus China.
The terms of the pact obliged Tehran to fully dismantle its nuclear programme and provide assurances of full compliance with the agreement. Iran was to ship 97 per cent of its fuel out of the country, curb production of enriched uranium and plutonium, and allow regular inspections of the Fordow, Natanz and Arak facilities. In return, the international community would ease the sanctions regime that has burdened the Persian economy to the tune of $100 billion between 2012 and 2014.
The deal would have frozen Iran's nuclear production for at least the next 10 years, according to experts, as many of the restrictions defined by the JCPOA had an expiry date. However, former President Trump's unilateral withdrawal halted all progress and prompted Tehran to restart its nuclear programme. The US reinstated sanctions and Iran continued to enrich uranium above permitted levels of around 60 per cent purity.
Biden's arrival in the White House altered events. His administration intended to revive the nuclear deal and in June the return of the JCPOA seemed near. However, three months later the negotiating table is still deadlocked, coinciding with the arrival to power in Iran of Ebrahim Raisi, former head of the judiciary and from the hardline wing of the regime, replacing the "moderate" Hassan Rohani.
Raisi and his team appear to be in no hurry. Under his tenure, Tehran has ignored its interlocutors and moved forward on its nuclear roadmap, dragging the burden of the sanctions regime on the Iranian economy. In the meantime, the UN Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has succeeded in expanding its monitoring of Iran's nuclear facilities, despite the Persian authorities' obstructions.
The Iranian foreign minister did not specify the exact date on which Iran will return to the negotiations. But he did criticise Biden on the grounds that the president needs to back up his speech "with concrete actions" to show that the US is serious about the Iran deal. "They say they are willing to resume the deal, but they don't take action," Amirabdollahian noted.
"And what is worse, they have managed to impose new sanctions," he remarked. The minister added that for years, Iran "has not gained any benefits" from the deal, so there is no incentive to return to the JCPOA path. Despite these declarations, the European High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell, was optimistic about the resumption of talks after meeting with the Persian representative.
Tehran refuses to negotiate directly with Washington. On the other hand, Amirabdollahian claims to have held "constructive talks" this week with the Germans and the British, who are active parties to the nuclear deal.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington's position had been "firm and sincere" in reviving the nuclear deal, but warned that the possibility of returning to the negotiating table is not indefinite. The Biden administration regrets that Iran has so far failed to give assurances to salvage the negotiations.
The positions seem irreconcilable. Tehran advocates a total lifting of sanctions before continuing negotiations. A premise that does not satisfy Washington at all. Meanwhile, Iran is approaching a point of no return in its programme. If it were to obtain nuclear weapons, the starting conditions would break down and the negotiating table would collapse under its own weight. For their part, the Iranian authorities are less and less confident that the United States will ease the sanctions regime within the agreement, so it would make no sense to accept the conditions either.
In this scenario, Washington is preparing a contingency plan. A strategy capable of putting the brakes on Iran's advanced nuclear programme, although at the moment these are only suppositions. An official told the Associated Press that "the only 'Plan B' that concerns us is the one that Iran could be developing if it decides to move forward with its programme and not return to negotiations". At the same time, President Raisi maintains that Tehran is not looking for weapons.