Gulf concerns push Vienna talks to the brink

Ahmed Mustafa, Tuesday 4 Jan 2022

Following the resumption of the eighth round of talks on reviving the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna, hopes of a breakthrough are fading, reports Ahmed Mustafa

Gulf concerns push Vienna talks to the brink
The EU delegation in Vienna in negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear deal (photo: AFP)

The round started late last year, after a months-long hiatus due to Iranian elections that brought in a new president and a new negotiating team. The negotiations aimed at bringing back the US to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between Iran and world powers in 2015 – and widely known as “the nuclear deal”. The core theme of the deal was that Iran would curb its nuclear activities in return for the lifting of long standing sanctions and its rehabilitation in the world community. In 2018, former American president Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the deal, judging it to be in favour of Iran and rather than tackling other practices threatening American interests.

Before this round broke up for the New Year holidays last week, Iran and Russia sounded positive about the course of the negotiations. But the Americans played down any progress in the talks, claiming the Iranians wanted to go back to square one, ignoring all that had been negotiated with previous teams. The US State Department said that Washington “thinks it is too soon to say how substantive any progress in talks to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in Vienna might have been.” State Department Spokesman Ned Price told reporters this week that “the United States has not yet seen sufficient urgency demonstrated by Iran.”

Americans are not in direct talks with Iranians in Vienna. A troika of the three European signatories to JCPOA (UK, France and Germany) talked to the Iranians and then to the US delegation. The Iranians want all sanctions lifted to stop the violation of the deal since 2018. The Americans will not accept lifting all sanctions. Tehran relies on the support of the other two signatories to JCPOA, China and Russia. A source close to the Vienna talks told Al-Ahram Weekly that China has already asked the Iranians to give up on their demand of lifting all sanctions. “The Russians are trying to play a ‘mediatory’ role. They hold some leverage with Iran due to close Russian relations to the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corp. But how far will this help to get the Americans back to the deal is in doubt,” the source said.

A new element is now pushing the Vienna talks to the brink of unravelling. The Americans are insisting on making Gulf concerns about Iran’s destabilising efforts in the region part of the deal. More importantly, the Americans – along with the European contingent – want Iran to stop its ballistic missiles programme.

Ahead of resuming the Vienna talks this week, Tehran announced the launch of a space rocket with a satellite carrier. It later admitted the launch failed. But it had already drawn criticism from world powers, especially France, which condemned it. This is not the first time the Iranian space programme failed to launch vessels into outer space, but the timing of the announcement was seen as an “unfortunate Iranian ploy” to resist the demand that its missile programme should be placed under UN monitoring as part of the new deal being negotiated in Vienna.

This week, Saudi Arabia expressed concern that Iranian intervention in the region through its proxies like the Lebanese Hizbullah and the Yemeni Houthis. Giving an address at the kingdom’s advisory Shura Council, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz said, “we follow with concern the Iranian government’s policy which is destabilising regional security and stability, including building and backing sectarian armed militias and propagating its military power in other countries.” The Saudi monarch also lamented Iran’s “lack of cooperation with the international community regarding its nuclear programme and its development of ballistic missiles.”

The Biden administration might be keen to reverse Trump’s move of withdrawing from JCPOA, but it seems it is not ready to go as far as ignoring the concerns of its allies in the region. Saudi commentator Abdul-Aziz Alkhames told Al-Ahram Weekly that, “though the Democrats want to return to the Iran nuclear deal, the failure of the Vienna negotiations is becoming a more likely possibility. The Americans cannot ignore the Iranian ballistic missile programme and the threat it poses to the whole region”. He added, “the old nuclear deal signed in 2015 is irrelevant now, considering the new circumstances. The Gulf cannot live with Iranian interventions in the region through proxies like Hizbullah and the Houthis. Unfortunately, the international community is not that firm in facing Iranian manoeuvres. Tehran is coming close to producing military-grade uranium and becoming a nuclear country. That would lead to a nuclear arms race in the region. Nobody wants that.”

According to a British academic closely following Iranian affairs, it might be difficult for the Iranians to offer the concessions demanded by the West. Yet the fate of the Vienna talks depends on them, especially concerning Iran’s ballistic missile programme. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he told Al-Ahram Weekly that China is no longer siding completely with Iran. “The Chinese are also abandoning the Iranians considering how difficult it is to benefit from Iranian oil. As a result, they moved to Iraq to create a replacement for any supply of oil. The Chinese started making deals with the warlords or militant groups in Iraq”, he added.

The internal situation in Iran might force President Ebrahim Raisi to make these concessions. In his meetings last week with the Ayatollahs in Qom, the scholars asked him to solve Iran’s economic hardships and end the country’s international isolation.

But the British academic expects the Vienna talks to fail due to internal opposition, in addition to the West embracing Gulf concerns. He said: “A new deal, or even reviving the old deal, will be facing great opposition from the very strong Revolutionary Guard as well as the Quds Brigade. Those hardliners accused Zarif,” the foreign minister in the previous Iranian government, “of playing into the hands of the imperialists and signing the 2015 deal”.

A version of this article appears in print in the 6 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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