The Iran files

Ahmed Mustafa, Tuesday 23 Nov 2021

Although all parties at the negotiating table will be raising the stakes, no breakthrough is expected at the seventh round of Vienna talks between Iran and Western powers, to be held on 29 November, writes Ahmed Mustafa

The  Iran files
(R to L) Iran s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian meets with the Director-General of (IAEA) Rafael Grossi at the foreign ministry headquarters in Tehran (photo: AFP)

The talks are focused on reviving the Iran nuclear, signed in 2015, which former American president Donald Trump revoked in 2018. The deals initially provisioned that Iran should scale down its nuclear capabilities in exchange for alleviating Western and international sanctions on Tehran and gradually rehabilitating it within the world community.

But since Washington withdrew from the deal, Iran started to violate its provision, angering the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that monitors its nuclear activities.

The most recent criticism from IAEA was days before the new round of talks between Iran and the group of 5 (China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom) as well as, indirectly now, the United States. Iran denies the IAEA accusation that it is accumulating more highly enriched uranium, and calls on the organisation to “stay technical and steer away from politics”. Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said Iran should begin to “stay on track” for technical cooperation with the IAEA, according to Iranian media.

Meanwhile the Americans are floating the idea of an “interim agreement” at the Vienna talks to serve as a temporary purpose until the final return of Washington to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or,  alternatively, a new deal is renegotiated.

Since the Biden administration came to power, the three European signatories to JCPOA have tried to negotiate America’s re-joining of the deal. The previous round was in June, but Tehran postponed the next one as it had had a new president and started to assemble a new negotiating team.

The stumbling block for the US to re-join the deal is that Iran should stop its violations, while Iran insists on lifting all sanctions imposed on it since 2017. The latter might prove impossible, not only for the US but also for the Europeans, as most of those new sanctions were imposed for  reasons other than Iran’s nuclear activities.

Iran is going to Vienna with prior intent not to yield to pressure. It seems emboldened by what looks like a softening in the position of its Arab Gulf neighbours, as one Gulf academic and political analyst tells Al-Ahram Weekly. “Tehran is as adamant on its positions on the nuclear talks, as it is towards relations with its Gulf neighbours. Saudi-Iranian negotiations stalled because Iran wanted to resume formal diplomatic relations without making any promises in return. Its meddling in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen continues. Its building of a weapons arsenal has not abated, at least as it announces every now and then.”

It might be a preemptive conclusion by the Gulf analyst that the Iranians will restrict talks to relations with the Gulf. But that adds to a widely perceived view among commentators that the upcoming round of the Vienna talks is very unlikely to achieve a breakthrough.

In an interview with the US National Public Radio (NPR), Vali Nasr, professor of international affairs and Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, was pessimistic about the outcome of the seventh round of the Vienna talks: “I think the very first set of meetings the two sides will be sizing each other up. You know, there’s a new Iranian negotiating team coming to the table. They have to get comfortable in their seats, so to speak. They have to get to know their American counterparts. Unlike the previous team, which had negotiated the deal in 2015, this team actually had stood opposed to that deal… So my expectations for the first round is limited. I don’t think there’s going to be any breakthroughs on this. And that team is also looking to see whether the United States and the Europeans will come to the table with anything different than where things were left off in June.”

Even on the accusations of Iran by IAEA that it is speeding up its nuclear activities, professor Nasr said, “these are all pressure tactics on the United States and the Europeans, essentially warning signs that if they don’t abide by their part of the deal, which is to provide Iran with economic benefits, that Iran would also withhold cooperation on the nuclear side of the deal.”

Tehran responded to the notion of an‘interim agreement”, administration officials reportedly said, by rejecting it. Some Iranian officials even said that Iran is going to Vienna to negotiate with the Europeans, Russia and China, not the Americans.

In an interview with the Iranian Mehr news agency, Abolfazl Amouei, a member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, said that a temporary agreement at the Vienna talks is not a serious issue for the time being.

“What has been published in the American media as a temporary agreement has not yet been seriously brought up by the P4+1 officials… We do not negotiate with the Americans and our negotiating side is the P4+1,” Amouei told the news agency. “Iran’s talks with the P4+1 will take place in Vienna on November 29 and the topic of the talks is the removal of anti-Iran sanctions. Without the lifting of sanctions, it is not possible for Iran to return to the JCPOA agreement after ignoring the implementation of paragraphs 26 and 36 of the deal.”

Western diplomats told Reuters this week that the Europeans and the Americans are trying to bring Russia and China to their side to exert more pressure on Iran. Russia has been supportive of Vienna talks, but China has undercut the US leverage by buying Iranian oil, throwing Tehran an economic lifeline in violation of US sanctions. “One way to pressure Iran to rejoin the original pact or, if that is not possible, to accept another arrangement would be to persuade Beijing and Moscow that Tehran, not Washington, is the obstacle,” Western diplomats said, according to Reuters.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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