The New Zealand Herald
Attack on Iran’s Natanz plant complicates US-Iran nuke talks
The attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility is casting a major shadow over today’s resumption of indirect talks between the US and Iran over resurrection of the international accord limiting Iran’s nuclear programme.
Neither Iran nor the US say the incident will crater the negotiations. But the attack and the destruction of a significant amount of Iran’s uranium enrichment capability add uncertainty to the discussions in Vienna.
The attack gives both sides reason to harden their positions, yet each has incentives to keep the talks on track.
Iran wants Washington to lift sanctions that have contributed to damaging its economy, including measures not related to its nuclear programme. It insists that the sanctions be lifted before it returns to compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement that then-President Donald Trump pulled the US out of in 2018.
For the Biden administration, the talks are a high-stakes gamble that it can salvage what the Obama administration considered one of its prime foreign policy achievements and slow Iran’s programmes, even as critics claim the accord had given Iran a pathway to a nuclear weapon instead of closing it off.
Iran has blamed Israel for the destruction at an important underground facility, and Israeli media has been filled with claims from unnamed officials claiming responsi
bility. The Biden administration, meanwhile, has neither praised nor condemned the attack. The White House said the US “had no involvement” and had “nothing to add to speculation about the causes”.
The attack adds a fresh complication to discussions in Vienna and also to President Joe Biden’s efforts to smooth ties with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enjoyed a close relationship with Trump, who abandoned the Iran agreement and began a failed campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran by imposing harsh sanctions.
The US has said it is prepared to lift or ease sanctions that are “inconsistent” with the nuclear deal along with sanctions that are “inconsistent with the benefits” that Iran expected to get from agreeing to the accord. The deal had removed nuclear sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its atomic programme, although critics noted that many of those restrictions were time-limited and would expire before 2030.
Those same critics, including many in Congress, have expressed concerns that non-nuclear sanctions — such as those imposed for terrorism, ballistic missile activity and human rights abuses — may be on the table in the negotiations. The administration has not specifically commented on that but has said it will not offer Iran sweeteners unrelated to the agreement.
Israeli officials have raised concerns, too, about what they fear would be a precipitous US return to the deal, and news of the attack broke as Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin was visiting Israel.
Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken will be in Brussels this week for talks with European and Nato allies that are likely to touch on Iran. The destruction of advanced centrifuges at Natanz came at a critical time in the Vienna talks that are intended to resurrect the nuclear deal. Trump’s withdrawal and his reintroduction of sanctions, along with Iran’s decisions to break its own commitments to the agreement, have left it in significant jeopardy.
Key to the deal were restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment. Activities at the heavily fortified Natanz facility, which is built into a mountain, were among those most constrained.