The tone from Iran's Ebrahim Raisi at the UN General Assembly last month raises questions over the wannabe nuclear state's next steps, and with it questions over how the West, the US in particular, will approach the issue, writes Emily Barley 

Sparks flew last week at the UN as Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi used his first speech to the General Assembly to set out a harder line on the US and Iran's nuclear programme. He seized upon America's perceived weakness following the shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan and described economic sanctions against Iran during the coronavirus pandemic as "crimes against humanity".

This is a marked change in tone from the approach adopted by former President Hassan Rouhani, who was minded towards a deal on nuclear and was removed from his post over the summer by Iranians who perceived him to be soft on the US.

Raisi has been emboldened by President Biden's missteps on security and foreign policy, especially in Afghanistan, and a strengthening in Iran's relationship with China. Last year, alarms bells rang over a new strategic partnership between the two adversaries of the West which includes trade and security. China's willingness to support Iran's economy lessens the impact of Western sanctions, while cooperation between the two on security indicates a growing threat to America's power.

Outside of the official UN meetings, foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to hear him reiterate the US's willingness to reopen negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran. When pushed, Secretary Blinken is reported to have said the US is working on contingency plans in case Iran does not return to talks. It was also reported that an American national security advisor met with representatives from Israel to discuss 'Plan B' this week.

Iran still denies that it has any ambitions for nuclear weapons, while growing its nuclear programme and refusing to allow comprehensive inspections. President Raisi has expressed the view that the ball is in America's court – as far as he is concerned, the US broke the previous nuclear deal and continues to break it with economic sanctions.

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The way forward for the US is unclear. President Trump's 'maximum pressure' policy, where harsh sanctions on Iran were supposed to weaken the country and bring them to the negotiating table on terms more favourable to the US, failed, and a return to the approach taken by President Obama may no longer work as Iran is now in a stronger position and views the US as weakened.

The Biden administration is said to be considering using economic incentives to extract concessions from Iran, and Trump's plans for military intervention – including strikes on Iran's assets overseas – are gathering dust but could theoretically be revived.

Privately, European leaders have expressed their concerns that President Biden's decisions on Afghanistan have weakened America's position and may mean any threats made against Iran are not taken seriously by President Raisi. New British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has confined her remarks to urging Iran to return to the negotiating table and to release dual-citizen prisoners including British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Meanwhile, analysis from the Institute for Science and International Security suggests that Iran has made use of the break in talks to further develop its nuclear capability, reaching 'unchartered territory' in its accumulation of knowledge and enriched uranium. Experts are concerned that Iran may be within touching distance of developing a nuclear weapon, or may become a 'threshold state' with the ability to rapidly develop a nuclear weapon at any time.

Either of these would be bad news for the West as Iran's negotiating position would be further strengthened and the country would present a real threat to enemies including Israel.

Talks must now resume as a matter of urgency, but as things stand there is little incentive for Iran to engage. President Raisi is comfortable taking a hard line, playing to his home crowd, and developing his country's nuclear programme even further, and President Biden is left scrambling to find an effective carrot or stick following the foreign policy failings that have damaged America's standing in the world.

As the threat from Iran grows and America steps back from its role as global hegemon, Boris Johnson and other European leaders will be carefully considering what, if anything, they can do about the declining security situation in the Middle East.

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