In a sign that the negotiations to revive the nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers will not be straightforward, Iran stated after just one day of talks in Vienna that everything discussed in previous rounds could be renegotiated.
It is unclear whether the new Iranian stance represents an opening manoeuvre by Iran’s new president or signals a serious challenge for those hoping to restore the nuclear deal. It will be a cause for concern until the intentions behind it are clearer.
When the negotiations on the deal began in Vienna this week, European officials expressed cautious optimism after Tehran gave signals that it could continue the negotiations from where they left off under former Iranian president Hassan Rouhani.
To prevent the derailment of the talks, French President Emmanuel Macron told his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi by telephone on Monday that Iran must engage constructively in the talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.
The European powers are seeking to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that has been moribund since the US walked out of it in 2018, prompting Tehran to ramp up nuclear activities as Washington reimposed sanctions.
France’s objective “is to see Iran return to full respect for all of its commitments under the JCPOA and the United States return to the agreement,” the French presidency said.
A statement from Raisi’s office added that he had urged Macron “to strive with other parties in Vienna to conclude the negotiations and lift the sanctions against Iran.”
“Sending a full team to the talks shows Iran’s serious will in these talks,” Raisi said. Referring to the US, he added that “those who have started to violate the nuclear deal must gain the confidence of the other party for the negotiations to proceed in a real and fruitful manner.”
The EU chair of the talks, Enrique Mora, said after the first session of the discussions on Monday that he felt “extremely positive,” though he acknowledged that “difficult issues” had yet to be tackled.
As evidence of potential difficulties in the talks, Iran indicated that all issues discussed in previous rounds of diplomacy could be renegotiated. Speaking to Iranian state television, Ali Bagheri, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, referred to the previous rounds of talks as a “draft.”
“Drafts are subject to negotiation. Therefore, nothing is agreed on unless everything has been agreed on,” he said. “On that basis, all discussions that took place in the six rounds are summarised and are subject to negotiations. This was admitted by all the parties in today’s meeting as well.”
Bagheri said he was optimistic about the talks, but that he was looking for a US guarantee that it would not only lift a swath of economic sanctions against the country but also promise not to reimpose them in future.
Another Iranian state TV segment saw Bagheri in Vienna saying that Iran demanded a “guarantee by America not to impose new sanctions” and not to re-impose previously lifted sanctions. Mohammed Eslami, the country’s civilian nuclear chief, speaking to IRNA, Iran’s state news agency, reiterated that demand.
“The talks are about the return of the US to the deal, and they have to lift all sanctions, and this should be in practice and verifiable,” he said.
The remarks contradicted comments made on Monday by the EU diplomat leading the talks, who said that Iran had agreed that they could resume largely where they had ended in June, rather than with an entirely new agenda.
But western diplomats remained optimistic about the outcome of the negotiations. A European diplomat close to the talks told Al-Ahram Weekly that the first days of the negotiations were expected to be difficult after a hiatus of about six months.
“There is a new government in Iran, and no doubt it will have a somewhat different approach and style. But the end game remains the same: returning to the nuclear deal, lifting the sanctions, and ensuring Iran will not develop a military nuclear programme,” the diplomat said.
There had been fears that Iran’s new administration, elected in June, would rip up the progress made under Rouhani in the first round of talks and insist that the sole legitimate issue for discussion was the list of US economic sanctions.
On Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid claimed that Iran had only agreed to restart the nuclear negotiations to remove the sanctions and covertly advance its weapons programme.
Standing alongside British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in London, he predicted that Tehran would “play for time, earn billions from lifting sanctions, deceive the world and covertly advance their nuclear programme.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the British decision to host the Israeli foreign minister on the day the talks started. “The UK issues anti-Iran statements with the Israeli regime – a nuclear-holder and enemy of the 2015 nuclear agreement. Utter lack of goodwill and an evident sign that London doesn’t seek to preserve the deal. You can’t have lunch with the foe of a deal and for dinner sit at another table to claim support for the same deal,” it said.
Israel is almost isolated in its refusal to revive the nuclear deal. The Gulf countries took the side of the Biden administration in holding that a return to the nuclear deal could lead to an easing of tensions in the region and solve complex crises, especially the war in Yemen and the crises in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.
The Gulf states fear that if they side with Israel in refusing the revival of the talks, they might upset the Biden administration and allow Iran to continue its nuclear activities without the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
According to the IAEA, since September Iran has enriched around 17.7 kg of uranium to 60 per cent purity, as opposed to the 3.67 per cent allowed under the deal. Iran is also believed to be using advanced centrifuges at its Fordow facility, also in violation of the deal.
The Agency’s inspectors cannot ascertain the scale of the enrichment due to Iran’s ban on inspectors at the sites. IAEA Chief Rafael Grossi visited Iran this week to reach a new deal on monitoring.
In recent weeks, the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have improved relations with Tehran. Last week, the Abu Dhabi government signed an agreement to boost economic cooperation with Iran. As for Riyadh, it has started talks with Tehran to find a political solution to the crisis in Yemen.
A tightening of ties with the Gulf states is a pillar of Iranian foreign policy, as announced by Raisi shortly after his election in June.
While the nuclear talks have just started, the hope is they will bear fruit before too long. A delay into the second half of 2022 may have serious consequences, because during the mid-term US Congressional elections the Biden administration may be subject to pressure from the Israel lobby in Washington to take a tougher stance.
For Iran, returning to the nuclear deal and lifting the sanctions may not be the hardest part of the talks. The most difficult part may be to trust the US. As a result, there is Tehran’s demand for guarantees that the US will not withdraw from a new nuclear deal in the future.
However, the Biden administration cannot give such a guarantee to Iran, and it cannot commit future US administrations to the deal. It is a dilemma that has major repercussions at the domestic and international levels.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.