The Takeaway: Iran nuclear diplomacy creeps forward in Moscow and Paris

Hot Take: Road back to Iran nuclear deal includes key stop in Russia


Malley on road for nuclear talks. US Iran Envoy Robert Malley visits Moscow and Paris this week for talks on “Iran’s nuclear program and the need to quickly reach and implement an understanding on a mutual return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA),” according to the Department of State.

Background. The Trump administration withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May 2018. The Biden administration has given top priority to negotiating Iran’s return to the agreement, but the last, inconclusive meeting among the JCPOA parties — including the EU, Russia and China — was held on June 20. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who was sworn in on Aug. 3, seems in no rush to resume the talks. In a telephone call with French President Emmanuel Macron on Sept. 5, Raisi said, “We have no objection to useful negotiations, but the program and result of the negotiations should be the lifting of sanctions against Iran. Negotiation for negotiation is useless.”

‘Seriously undermined.’ Iran continues to stockpile highly enriched uranium that could be used to make nuclear weapons in violation of the JCPOA, according to a confidential report this week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN atomic watchdog organization. The IAEA says its monitoring and verification activities have been “seriously undermined“ by Iran’s actions. More than one month ago, on Aug. 4, the day after Raisi’s inauguration, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the talks “cannot drag on indefinitely” because at some point “the advantages that the JCPOA would convey would be outweighed and outpaced by the advancements in Iran’s nuclear program.”

Israel wonders about a plan B for Iran. US President Joe Biden “made clear his commitment to ensure Iran never develops a nuclear weapon“ in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Aug. 27. Although Biden’s statement was well-received in Israel, “it’s not clear what is the American plan B in case negotiations fail,” says Micky Aharonson, research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “There are many in Israel who ask how valid is the JCPOA due to Iran’s latest progress with enrichment.”

Our take: Raisi said in August he “will support any diplomatic plan” that lifts sanctions on Iran. But time is short and getting shorter, and for diplomacy to move ahead, the United States needs a positive signal from Iran. So far none are forthcoming. Let’s see if Russia is willing or able to move the ball after Malley’s meetings in Moscow. As we wrote here in August, Raisi, who did not oppose the JCPOA during the presidential election campaign, still has powerful incentives to close a deal: the prospects for economic investment and trade that would result from sanctions relief; a political boost (as the JCPOA was popular); and that most of the work was done by his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, and the previous foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. All of this does not mean a deal is imminent or even close, but there is a pulse.


From our regional correspondents:


1. Taliban takeover inspires Syrian jihadi group to rebrand


Militant Salafi-jihadi groups in Turkey and Syria are divided over whether they could form an Islamic emirate like the Taliban’s in Afghanistan or an all-encompassing caliphate like that of the Islamic State (IS). But jihadis of all stripes have this in common: “The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan gives them an example of how to sustain a protracted war to prevail over their enemies,” Metin Gurcan writes.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the dominant militant group in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, has already taken a cue from the Taliban and sought to rebrand itself as a moderate faction that has abandoned plans for global jihad. But unlike the Taliban, Gurcan writes, HTS and other Salafi groups lack enough local support to wage a lengthy war against the Syrian regime.


2. Can Russia keep the peace in Syria’s Daraa?


The Syrian government over the weekend intensified its shelling of the southwestern enclave of Daraa, despite a deal negotiated by Russia last week to quell the violence that’s forced tens of thousands to flee. The cease-fire, which calls for Iranian-backed government forces to lift a monthslong siege on Daraa’s al-Balad neighborhood, required the rebels to surrender their light weapons. But fresh demands put forward by Damascus on Friday, which include the establishment of army checkpoints and house searches for wanted rebels, threaten to unravel the fragile truce.

Russia, whose intervention in 2015 helped turn the civil war’s tide in the regime’s favor, has agreed as part of the deal to prevent Iran-backed militias from entering Daraa al-Balad. Examining Moscow’s motivations in the besieged enclave, Kirill Semenov says, “It can be assumed that Russia will continue its efforts to preserve the status quo, since for Moscow this is also largely a matter of prestige.”


3. Russia presses Turkey on S-400s


When the head of Russia’s arms export agency announced last month that a second batch of S-400s was headed for Turkey, it caused quite the stir in Ankara. Turkish officials denied the Russian systems were en route, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also declined to confirm whether a delivery was in the pipeline.

Displeased with Turkey’s position in regional conflicts ranging from Syria and Libya to Ukraine and the Caucasus, Russia may simply be trying to quietly sow further discord between Ankara and Washington, analysts say. Relations between the NATO allies soured over the S-400s, but Turkey and the United States now have a shared interest in Afghanistan’s stability. As Semih Idiz writes, “Moscow may be using the S-400 issue to apply pressure on Turkey at a time when Ankara is trying to improve its ties with the West.”


4. Nile dam deadlock persists as parties trade barbs


A deal over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) appears as distant as ever. Egypt and Sudan, which want a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam that Ethiopia is building, have suggested broadening the negotiating table to include the United Nations, the European Union and the United States. But Ethiopia, which in July announced the completed second filling of the dam reservoir, firmly rejects any internationalization of the talks. From Sudan’s perspective, the sticking point remains Ethiopia’s unwillingness to return to the tripartite talks, a Sudanese diplomatic source told Mohamed Saied.

Meanwhile, the fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has added a new dimension to the GERD tensions, writes Ayah Aman. Last week, Addis Ababa accused Khartoum of supporting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front attack in Benishangul-Gumuz, where the megadam is located.

5. IDF ensnared in Israeli political rift


The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is facing a torrent of criticism following the death of Barel Hadaria Shmueli, an Israeli border police sniper who was fatally shot by a Palestinian at point-blank range last month during rioting along the Gaza border. “In the wake of Shmueli’s killing, the political right and especially followers of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have targeted the last remaining sacred cow of the Israeli ethos: the IDF,” writes Ben Caspit. Netanyahu himself even waded into the controversy while vacationing in Hawaii.

The shooting has ignited a debate over the IDF’s fire-opening rules, with some accusing the Israeli military of preventing troops from firing on the Palestinians who rushed the border fence, as Afif Abu Much reports. The IDF’s preliminary investigation found there was no command given to hold fire, but the military probe has failed to quell the mounting criticism.

One Cool Thing: Egypt readies restoration of ancient road


Egypt will soon unveil the restoration of the Great Processional Way (El-Kebash Road), a newly renovated, 1.7-mile-long Pharaonic road in Luxor that connects two ancient temples. Dubbed the “Avenue of Sphinxes” because of the many statues lining the ancient pathway, the road’s construction spanned several Egyptian dynasties. As George Mikhail explains here, Cairo is billing the archaeological hotspot as the world’s largest open-air museum and has planned a festival to celebrate the road’s reopening in November.


What We’re Reading: Hunger as a war tactic in Yemen


Yemen’s warring parties have deliberately starved civilians, according to a new report from Yemeni rights group Mwatana and the Hague-based Global Rights Compliance. The 275-page report documents how the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes on farms, water facilities and fishing boats have impacted civilian access to food and water. For their part, the Iran-aligned Houthis have obstructed “indispensable aid, including food,” while also laying landmines that kill shepherds and livestock.

Mwatana chairperson Radhya al-Mutawakel put it this way: “Yemenis are not starving, they are being starved.” The Arab world’s poorest country is facing unprecedented levels of hunger this year, with an estimated 16 million Yemenis considered food insecure. Check out the full report here.

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