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Restoring the Iran nuclear deal: Breakthrough on the horizon

US officials tour the Middle East as negotiations gather pace

Manal Lotfy , Thursday 6 May 2021
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A flurry of diplomatic activity that has spread through Vienna, Washington, London and the Middle East suggests that talks between the US and Iran may be on the verge of restoring the nuclear deal.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in London on a three-day visit to discuss preparations for the G7 Summit in the UK next month, as well as Iran, China and other issues.  

In a tour intended to boost “long-standing political, economic, cultural and security ties,” several senior US officials are touring the Middle East, with Brett McGurk from the National Security Council and Derek Chollet from the State Department, among others, stopping in Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Amman this week.

A very high-profile Israeli delegation was also in Washington, where they met with US officials, while nuclear talks in Vienna were ongoing.

According to multiple Iranian and European sources, Washington has submitted new proposals to lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran to fully comply with its obligations under the nuclear deal of 2015.

During indirect talks between Tehran and Washington over the last couple of weeks in Vienna, US officials presented new plans detailing how Washington would lift sanctions on Iran if it were to roll back its nuclear programme. Diplomats and observers describe a dramatic sea change in the tone of talks in Vienna in the last few days and increasing diplomatic activities indicate that a deal may be in the pipeline.   

“The coming days are crucial in order to set the details and timetable for Washington to lift the sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran’s return to full compliance with the terms of the agreement,” one European diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly.

There are positive international and regional factors that encourage optimism about reviving the nuclear agreement. There is also a growing conviction that the revival of the nuclear agreement will be followed by a much needed easing of tensions in the region which Washington hopes will help with crises like Yemen and Syria,” he added.

At the beginning of the week, reports emerged from Iran and Iran-linked media outlets that a deal had been made on what the US would provide in return for Iran going back to compliance with the terms of the deal, which had given billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for curbing its nuclear programme. Reports of a prisoner swap deal also emerged.

Sources close to the talks stated that the US negotiating team put to the Iranians an economic proposal very similar to that of the 2015 talks. A European diplomat involved in the current talks said that what the US team put on the table was a complete return to the original deal, provided Iran could go back to its obligations under the deal.

Under the new US proposal, Washington would not only remove sanctions that directly undermine the nuclear deal, but those on Iran’s shipping, banking, energy, automotive and other industries that were designed to make a return to the nuclear deal more difficult.

While negotiators were hammering together a joint text that would spell out the potential return to compliance by both the US and Iran, all eyes were on Tehran and Washington for more details.  

“It is not clear when the final deal will be reached,” Iran’s Chief Negotiator Abbas Araqchi told state television.

A US return to the deal would be the biggest foreign policy initiative in the early months of Joe Biden’s presidency.

The potential breakthrough came despite public efforts by US officials to play down chances of an imminent deal.

The US State Department stated, “we are not at the cusp of any breakthrough” and dismissed the prisoner swap claim as false. “Unfortunately, that report is untrue,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said.

Special Iran Envoy Rob Malley also has been cautious with his public comments about the talks, stressing that things stand at an “unclear place in Vienna.”

Yet the intensifying of diplomatic activities was a sign of progress.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on a three-day visit to London. On Tuesday, he met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, having already met with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and discussed Iran among other issues in preparation for the G7 Summit in the UK on 6 June, which will be the first foreign visit for US President Joe Biden.

At the same time, top Biden administration officials and US senators have been crisscrossing the Middle East seeking to reassure Arab partners of America’s re-engagement with Iran and to discuss other policy agenda in the region.

Senator Chris Coons D-Del, a key Biden ally dispatched on overseas diplomatic missions, told reporters in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi that he hoped to allay the sheikhdom’s “understandable and legitimate concerns” about the return to the landmark deal and to create “broader engagement” with Gulf partners.

The potential diplomatic breakthrough with Tehran comes amid signs of rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran after Riyadh announced its support for nuclear negotiations with Iran and its desire to improve relations with its regional rival.

Saudi and Iranian officials have reportedly been meeting in Baghdad to discuss the ongoing war in Yemen, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman recently spoke out in favour of better relations with Tehran. Last Tuesday, he said in a television interview he hopes for “a good and special relationship” with Tehran.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh reacted on Thursday by saying that Tehran has been “a pioneer on the path to regional cooperation and welcomes the change of tone from Saudi Arabia”.

The current visits by US officials to the Middle East follow a week of top-level meetings in Washington involving Biden, his National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Blinken, his deputy Wendy Sherman, Special Iran Envoy Rob Malley and others with the head of Israel’s spy agency and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top national security aide.

At least three separate meetings were held with the Israelis last week, including one on Friday with Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen where Biden himself made an appearance. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Cohen was briefed on the Vienna discussions “and the progress being made there.”

The Israeli Ambassador to the US and the UN Gilad Arden, who took part in the talks, told the Israeli news website Ynet that he expected the US and Iran would strike an agreement within weeks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said, since the deal was signed in 2015, that Israel was not bound by it. But the fact that he sent a high-level security delegation to Washington indicates that there are still issues to be discussed in the light of the increasing probability that the United States is returning to it.

The stakes for the success of the ongoing talks are high. The Biden administration not only wants a return to the nuclear deal, they also want the deal to be a platform for a longer, stronger and wider deal that helps stability in the region and opens the door to ending conflicts in Yemen and Syria.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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