Efforts to bring the United States and Iran back into the 2015 nuclear deal stepped up a gear this week as the two countries, the Europeans, Russia and China met in Vienna to discuss how to breathe new life into the deal.
US President Joe Biden came into office in January this year stating that reviving the deal and getting Iran’s nuclear programme back under international restrictions was his foreign policy priority.
But Tehran and Washington have disagreed over Iran’s demand that the sanctions against the country be lifted first. The impasse had threatened to become an obstacle for the resumption of the talks.
According to European officials, the new talks in Vienna seek to reach a compromise in which both Washington and Tehran will move at the same speed and take “simultaneous steps” that will lead to the revival of the nuclear agreement.
The role of the Europeans will be to take simultaneous action to protect the Biden administration and the Iranian government from internal criticism.
Biden does not want to appear lenient towards Tehran, and the reformist movement led by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is facing a storm of internal criticism and important presidential elections in June.
Although Rouhani is not entitled to run in the elections, Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif is a possible candidate for the reformists, and he wants to restore the nuclear deal before the elections in order to have a winning card in his hands.
Some observers had been hoping that the new US administration might move more quickly to lift the sanctions and help the struggling reformist movement in Iran before the June presidential elections, but the Biden administration has opted for a slower, more measured pace due to internal and regional pressure from Middle Eastern countries such as Israel.
In a sign of the difficulties ahead, the US and Iran will begin with cautious steps. The negotiators from both sides will not hold direct talks, but will rather meet through mediators.
According to a European Commission statement, the US envoys will not be part of direct discussions with Iranian officials.
Diplomats say that such indirect or “proximate” talks between the parties are not unusual, such as was the case in the negotiations on the Dayton Accords that ended the 1992-1995 Bosnian War.
Javad Zarif underscored the challenges when he appeared to suggest that the US should move first before Iran came back into compliance.
The aim of the Vienna negotiations is to “rapidly finalise sanction-lifting and nuclear measures for the choreographed removal of all the sanctions, followed by Iran ceasing remedial measures,” Zarif wrote on Twitter.
“No Iran-US meeting. Unnecessary,” he added.
The US State Department expressed guarded optimism in a statement, saying that “these remain early days, and we don’t anticipate an immediate breakthrough as there will be difficult discussions ahead. But we believe this is a healthy step forward.”
Spokesman Ned Price said that “we do not anticipate” direct US-Iran talks in Vienna, but “the United States remains open to them.” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the “diplomatic road ahead may be long, as it was during the first negotiations. We are very clear-eyed about the hurdles that remain.”
The announcement that Washington and Tehran would begin indirect talks through intermediaries was one of the first signs of substantial progress in efforts to return both nations to the terms of the deal, which bound Iran to restrictions on its nuclear programme in return for relief from US and international sanctions.
“This is a first step,” Biden’s Iran envoy Rob Malley tweeted. He said that diplomats were now “on the right path.”
Malley is head of the US team in Vienna, and he was also a key negotiator during the negotiations that led to the 2015 nuclear deal during the administration of former US president Barack Obama.
While direct talks between officials from Washington and Tehran are off the table, the presence of both countries at the same gathering is an important step.
Russian Ambassador in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov described the meeting as business-like. “The impression is that we are on the right track, but the way ahead will not be easy and will require intensive efforts,” he said. “The stakeholders seem to be ready for that.”
He said before the meeting that the most prudent option would be “to agree on initial and significant steps in order to create a much more favourable climate to go fast to the destination point with full implementation of the JCPOA by all sides.”
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is the official name of the nuclear deal.
According to European officials, the negotiations are expected to focus on how to achieve simultaneous action by the US and Iran so that former US president Donald Trump-era sanctions can be removed at the same time as Tehran starts to re-comply with the limits imposed on its nuclear programme by the accord.
The negotiations in Vienna are expected to focus exclusively on restoring the original deal of 2015 and not to include concerns such as on Iran’s ballistic missile programme or its role in other Middle Eastern tensions, which both the US and European powers eventually want to tackle on different tracks after reviving the nuclear deal.
The proposal to divide the negotiations into two tracks was a European suggestion that neither America nor Iran had a choice about accepting. According to European officials, negotiating the nuclear deal with the regional crises at the same time would have been a “recipe for failure.”
A UK government spokesperson told Al-Ahram Weekly that London was working to revive the nuclear agreement as part of a European strategy to prevent nuclear proliferation by tightening International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) control over Iran’s nuclear activities and facilities, emphasising that “our priority remains to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, to promote stability and security in the region, secure the release of our dual-nationals and to keep the diplomatic door open for discussions on a new and comprehensive deal.”
“We welcome President Biden’s commitment that if Iran returns to compliance with the deal the US would re-enter the agreement, seeking to both strengthen and extend it. This is an important opportunity to restart engagement between Iran and the US and to realise the objectives of the JCPOA.” the spokesperson said.
The marathon talks have started, and the way the Europeans have framed these negotiations, the separation of tracks, and the “stimulus gestures” approach may yield positive outcomes.
The US might lift its veto on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) lending to Iran. Governor of the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) Abdolnaser Hemmati said that “we expect the International Monetary Fund to respond to Iran’s legal request as soon as possible, without discrimination or intrusion, or pressure from the United States.”
Another move would be for Washington to allow banks in South Korea and elsewhere to release as much as $7 billion in Iranian funds frozen by US sanctions. In return, Tehran could release dual nationals from its jails.
Such mutual gestures could ease a difficult path that is increasingly being restricted by a lack of trust. For the Europeans, the lack of trust between Washington and Tehran is the most difficult obstacle, and there is a feeling that if there is no tangible breakthrough in the next two months, the chances of failure will be greater than the chances of success.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly