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Can the world powers hold back Iran in new nuclear negotiations?

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JERUSALEM – Can the historic 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers be restored? As Iran and six world powers meet in Vienna on Monday to discuss the tattered treaty, the answer appears to be no.

Since then President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, Iran has advanced its nuclear program, making it virtually impossible to simply go back. The election of a hard-line leader in Iran, coupled with a US administration seen as weak in the region, further reduced prospects for a breakthrough.

The outlook looks so bleak that prominent voices in Israel, who pushed Trump to withdraw from the deal, are now saying the move was a huge mistake.

Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who fiercely opposed the original deal, was one of the few Israeli voices opposing the pullout at the time. He now says the US withdrawal has turned out to be the region’s “biggest mistake” of the past decade.

A flawed deal, he told a security conference last week, “was probably better than not having the deal and allowing the Iranians to use the pullout as an excuse to move on. ‘forward with the project “.

“Now they’re at the closest stage they’ve ever been to becoming a (nuclear) threshold state,” he said.

Here’s a look at the deal and what to expect this week:

Why did the original deal fall apart?

The 2015 deal between Iran and world powers – led by President Barack Obama – aimed to prevent Iran from being able to build a nuclear bomb. It offered Iran relief from crippling economic sanctions in return for 10 to 15 year restrictions on its nuclear activities. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.

Critics, led by then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, attacked the deal because the restrictions on Iran were temporary. They also complained that he failed to address Iran’s non-nuclear military activities, such as its support for hostile militant groups and the development of long-range missiles.

When Trump withdrew, with strong pressure from Netanyahu, he pledged a campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran. However, the approach seems to have turned against him. Despite increasing U.S. sanctions, the Iranian government remains firmly in power, and the country has rushed in with nuclear research banned by the original agreement.

Can’t the deal just be restored?

Iran started overstepping the terms of the deal after the US pulled out and is now enriching small amounts of uranium up to 60% purity, a small step from military grade levels of 90% . Iran is also making advanced centrifuges once banned by the deal, and its stockpile of uranium now far exceeds the limits of the deal.

Experts say that even if Iran were forced to abandon its uranium stockpile or stop its research, the expertise it has acquired cannot be taken away from it.

What are the prospects for this week’s discussions?

In the short term, this does not look encouraging. As talks approach, Iran’s hard-line president Ebrahim Raisi has made maximalist demands, including calls for the United States to release $ 10 billion in assets as a first move of good will.

The tough line could be an opening bet. European negotiators remain confident that an agreement will be reached in the short to medium term.

But US officials don’t seem optimistic. President Joe Biden and his top advisers have held a series of meetings in recent weeks with key allies and negotiating partners to prepare for a possible collapse of the talks.

Because of Trump’s withdrawal, Americans won’t even be in the negotiating room. Instead, they will be close by and work through mediators.

In an interview broadcast Friday, US chief negotiator Rob Malley said Iranian signs “are not particularly encouraging.”

Speaking to NPR, he said the United States preferred a diplomatic solution. But if that is not possible, he said the United States will react accordingly. “The options that are available to America are, you know, they’re familiar to everyone,” he said.

Given the lukewarm US response to alleged Iranian military activities in the region, including attacks on civilian ships in the Persian Gulf and a strike on a US base in Syria, US military action does not appear to be a successful one. serious threat. The failed US withdrawal from Afghanistan further eroded American credibility in the region.

“I am very pessimistic,” said Yoel Guzansky, a former official in the Israeli prime minister’s office who is now a senior researcher at the Tel Aviv Institute for National Security Studies. “Iran is showing patience, resilience, determination. I’m sorry to say the Americans aren’t showing it, and we don’t have a lot of time.”

What can Israel do?

Israel is not a party to the talks, but it has a huge stake in the outcome.

He sees Iran as his No. 1 enemy and sees an Iran with nuclear weapons as an existential threat. Israel is considered the only nuclear weapon state in the region, although it does not publicly recognize its own arsenal.

Netanyahu’s successor Naftali Bennett was careful not to confront Biden in public. But his positions are similar to Netanyahu’s. He expressed hope that an improved deal would emerge from the talks, but reiterated Israel’s long-standing threat to take unilateral action if necessary.

“We will maintain our freedom of action,” he said last week. On Sunday, he said Israel was “very troubled” by what he sees as a willingness by world powers to lift sanctions and restore “insufficient restrictions in the nuclear field.” He said Israel conveyed this message to all parties concerned.

Despite such threats, Israel might hesitate. Iran has spent the past decade dispersing its nuclear sites and hiding them deep underground. Moreover, Israel might be reluctant to sabotage a global diplomatic effort.

Is Iran Overplaying Its Hand?

China and Russia, two important Iranian trade outlets and parties to the deal, could become impatient with Tehran, especially if a now precarious system of international nuclear inspections collapses. Economic pressure continues to squeeze the Iranians, who have seen their economies evaporate with the free fall of the country’s currency.

If the talks drag on, the United States could turn to new sanctions or even military action. There is also the risk of Israeli military intervention.

“We will see in the next few days what exactly will be” Iran’s approach, State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week. “But we have also been very clear that this is not a process that can go on indefinitely.”

– Associated Press editors Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington, Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed reporting.

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