A new nuclear deal is now probably on the cards, says Yassamine Mather. But Iran’s conservatives, US Republicans and the Israeli government are fuming
At a time when the western media is totally focussed on facts and fiction about Ukraine, we do not hear much about the Iran nuclear negotiations, even though a lot seems to be happening. There has been no official announcement by either side, but, given the hysteria of the Israeli media about what they claim to be the final (or near final) version of the deal, we can assume that events have moved speedily in the last two or three weeks.
On February 20, Israeli premier Naftali Bennett, addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that Israel is “deeply troubled” by the new agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear programme and claimed that it is “likely to create a more violent and less stable Middle East”.
Bennett was quoted as saying that the new agreement being negotiated is “shorter and weaker” than the 2015 deal on Tehran’s nuclear programme, adding: “We may see an agreement in a short while … Israel won’t accept Iran as a nuclear threshold state,” adding that “Israel has a clear and non-negotiable red line: it will always maintain its freedom of action to defend itself”! Apparently the “single biggest problem” with the deal is that, in two and a half years time, “Iran will be able to develop, install and operate advanced centrifuges … The Iranians have crossed one red line after another, including enriching at an unprecedented rate of 60%.” According to Bennett, the deal will pour billions of dollars into “the Iranian terror machine”, resulting in “a fast-track to military-grade enrichment”. Nor will Tehran be required to destroy the centrifuges it has built in recent years.
Of course, given the secrecy regarding these negotiations, it is difficult to assess for certain if Bennett’s comments are based on hard evidence or speculation (eg, has he actually read a draft of the agreement?). One reason to believe that his comments are based on the current draft is the fact that last week the Iranian delegation complained publicly about the presence of an Israeli team at or near the negotiations venue in Vienna. Putting two and two together, we can assume that the US shared a draft of the final deal with its number one Middle East ally. But it was only after the Bennett outburst that the Iranian government officially confirmed significant progress toward a nuclear deal, adding that talks with Saudi Arabia will resume shortly.
All this is a far cry from the Trump era, when Iran was completely isolated. However, foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh admitted: “The remaining issues are the hardest.” At the same time, the US negotiating team was telling the Wall Street Journal that an agreement could be finalised within the next couple of days.
There is speculation that the final deal will involve Iran reducing its uranium enrichment programme to levels agreed in 2015 and that the US will lift all sanctions that were “incompatible” with the agreement signed then. According to some news agencies, the “unresolved” issues include “the removal of sanctions on Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his entourage, along with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which was designated a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) by the Trump administration”.
However, even before full details of the deal are known, its opponents are taking a stand against it – not just in Tel Aviv, but also in Washington and Tehran. Thirty-three Republican senators have warned the Biden administration that, unlike the deal signed in 2015 during the Obama administration, any new agreement has to be submitted to Congress for approval.
A letter signed by a number of legislators, led by senator Ted Cruz, said Congress would use “the full range of options and leverage available” to ensure that the government adhered to US laws governing any new accord with Iran. Contrary to the claims, however, it seems there is no real worry about Iran’s nuclear capabilities: the main concern for the likes of Cruz is the money invested so far in ‘regime change’ plans regarding Iran.
Not to be outdone by US congressmen, conservative deputies in the Islamic Majles (Iran’s parliament) have set new conditions for a return to the 2015 nuclear deal. Around 250 legislators in the 290-member parliament – controlled by conservatives and hardliners since 2020 – called on president Ebrahim Raisi to adhere to their conditions in restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). According to the deputies, “the ‘cruel and terrorist’ American government – and its ‘weak and contemptible’ followers, France, Germany and the United Kingdom – have shown they are not bound by any agreement over the past few years, so Iran must learn from the experience and set clear red lines”.1
It does look, however, as if the supreme leader and his favoured president, Ibrahim Raisi, have already decided to accept a deal, even if they cannot get such ‘guarantees’.
The obvious reasons for this are the fact that Iranian leaders have given up any hope of future trade or construction deals with China or Russia unless the JCPOA deal is revived. In fact there is the realisation in Tehran that, when it comes to Russian and Chinese investments and trade deals, Israel is far more important than the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In addition, internally the Islamic Republic is facing yet another major corruption scandal. This time it involves senior figures in the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), following the recent ‘privatisation’ of large chunks of its assets and properties.
The US-funded Radio Farda claims to have received a leaked audio recording of two former IRGC commanders – Mohammad Ali Jafari and his deputy for construction and economic affairs, Sadegh Zolghadrnia – discussing the then ongoing investigations about corruption in their organisation, as well as Tehran’s municipality under then mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf. This specific case dealt with a subsidiary of the Revolutionary Guards Cooperative Foundations, which originally claimed to act in support of the “poor and disinherited”. However, they soon became part of the regime’s security forces, funnelling large sums to groups that support the regime inside and outside Iran – including recruits for the Quds Force, the external wing of the IRGC.
In 2018, following initial information about the corruption, a development company associated with Quds activities in Syria was dissolved and last year some of its managers were sentenced to prison for fraud, money-laundering and illegal seizure of funds. Among them was former IRGC member Mahmoud Seif, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison, while another culprit was Issa Sharifi who had been deputy Tehran mayor when Qalibaf was mayor. At the time there were many rumours about Qalibaf’s own involvement in the corruption scandal, but he survived those accusations and is currently speaker of the Majles.
However, in the last couple of weeks there have been many calls for further investigations against Qalibaf. According to the leaked audio file,
Zolghadrnia says that Qalibaf – who faced accusations of financial corruption during his mayoral tenure – had come to him offering to sign a phoney contract with the IRGC in an attempt to cover up an 80 trillion rial (about $2 billion at the time) shortfall discovered during an audit of the Cooperative Foundation … Later in the meeting, Zolghadrnia suggests that Hossein Taeb, the head of the IRGC’s feared intelligence branch, had lobbied in favour of Qalibaf and that he was “very upset” that things had not gone his way.2
The audio tape was leaked on February 1, and by February 13 its authenticity appeared to be confirmed. A day later a spokesman for the IRGC, Ramezan Sharif, made a statement regarding “mismanagement” and a “violation” within a company affiliated with the IRGC’s Cooperative Foundation. In other words, that this was just an isolated incident.
While most Iranians are well aware that commanders of the IRGC are regular beneficiaries of corruption within this powerful and wealthy section of the Shia Republic, the leaking of this, together with a number of other audio files taken from conversations between high-ranking members of the regime, show the widening cracks within the ruling circles, as warring factions are competing within all governmental military sections to make personal financial gains.
Forty-three years after the revolution of 1979, no-one claims this regime has anything to do with the “disinherited”. It is the government of billionaire clerics and corrupt military commanders. Today they hope to benefit financially from a new nuclear deal – no doubt they are planning new ways to make huge sums of money, once western investment and trade resumes, which would also allow them to move their ill-gotten gains more easily out of Iran to safe banking zones.