The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the world powers have been hanging by a thread. Officials, whether in Iran or the Western countries, have repeatedly said over the past few weeks that the negotiations are more likely to fail than to succeed after the talks have stalled since March. Disagreements have been over keeping the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Al-Quds Force on the US list of terrorist organisations.
But after a surprise visit to Tehran on Saturday by EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell, an unexpected breakthrough occurred as Tehran and the international powers announced the resumption of the nuclear negotiations in Doha.
During his visit, Borrell said that his objective was to “give a new momentum to bring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA – the Iran nuclear agreement] on track.”
He stated that he wanted the talks to be resumed “quickly, immediately.” The talks then resumed on Tuesday.
Borrell said that the world had changed since February when Russia invaded Ukraine.
“The world will be a much more secure place if we have a deal that can ensure for Iran the full economic benefits of the agreement and at the same time address the concerns of the international community about non-proliferation, global security, and regional stability,” he said.
Enrique Mora, the EU envoy coordinating the indirect talks in Vienna between Iran and the US, accompanied Borrell to Tehran. Before heading there, he posted a picture on Twitter of a dinner in Brussels with Robert Malley, the US special envoy to Iran. The picture has been taken by analysts as a sign that Borrell is carrying a message from the US.
The timing of the resumption of the negotiations and where they will take place has also raised questions. Until now, the nuclear negotiations were taking place in Vienna, and their transfer to Doha is not without significance.
A European diplomat familiar with the negotiations told Al-Ahram Weekly that the choice of Doha as a venue for the talks may reflect the fact that the technical aspects related to curbing and monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities were agreed upon during previous rounds in Vienna.
The outstanding issues, including lifting the sanctions on Tehran, especially sanctions in the oil sector, might be completed in the region, he said.
It is not difficult to understand the reason for the urgency to resume talks that have been stalled since March. The West is now facing a much greater risk than upsetting Israel and the Gulf states by bringing the nuclear deal back to life.
This greater risk is inflation and slowing economic growth. Currently, inflation rates in Europe and the US are about 10 per cent, and they threaten political and social stability, with demonstrations taking place in London a few days ago to protest the cost-of-living crisis, for example.
With inflation expected to rise to more than 11 per cent by October, the Western countries want to move quickly to bring down energy prices.
In this context, Iran appears to be one of the countries capable of rapidly increasing its share of oil in the global market if the sanctions against it are lifted.
On the other hand, Gulf states do not seem to be on the verge of increasing their oil production at rates greater than the current ones. During the G7 Summit this week, French President Emmanuel Macron argued in an exchange with his US counterpart Joe Biden that Gulf states’ ability to increase production was limited.
Macron was caught by Reuters rushing to tell Biden that he had spoken to UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who had told him that the UAE and Saudi Arabia could barely increase their oil production.
“I had a call with Bin Zayed,” Macron was seen telling Biden after interrupting a conversation between the US leader and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on the sidelines of the G7 meeting.
“He told me two things. I’m at a maximum [production capacity]. This is what he claims... and then he said that the Saudis can increase by 150 [thousand barrels per day]. Maybe a little bit more, but they won’t have huge capacities before six months,” Macron said before being asked to continue discussions away from the cameras.
A French presidency official told Reuters that the international community should explore all the options to alleviate a Russian squeeze on energy supplies that has spiked prices, including talks with producing nations like Iran and Venezuela.
“There are resources elsewhere that need to be explored,” the French official said when asked how to alleviate high oil prices.
In 2018, then-US president Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran and imposed the toughest sanctions ever against any country on terrorism charges. The sanctions led to a sharp decline in what Iran is pumping into global markets.
Meanwhile, Venezuela has been under US sanctions since 2019, and it could reroute its crude if those restrictions were lifted.
He also called for a temporary increase in production from oil-producing nations and said there would be an effort to try to convince them to do so. A second official said all the options needed to be explored given the stakes, including those involving Iran and Venezuela.
The EU will explore with international partners ways to curb energy prices, including the feasibility of introducing temporary import-price caps, a section of the final G7 communique stated. EU officials said this meant both oil and gas.
Russian oil-export revenues climbed in May even though the sanctions reduced its export volumes, the International Energy Agency said in its June report. The US was the first to call for a mechanism that would cap the price other countries pay for Russian oil.
“We want to consolidate the position of buyers so that we can be in a better position facing Russia. So, we need to diversify supplies and have an outreach to producing countries,” the French official said. “We want the producing countries to produce more temporarily to get over the peak of the crisis.”
The official said that outreach would start with Biden’s trip to the Gulf in July.
The urgent need of the Western countries to increase their supply of oil does not mean that the negotiations with Iran in Doha will be easy. Attention will turn to the dilemma of whether to lift the Revolutionary Guards from the US list of terrorist organisations.
Israel and the Gulf states want to restrict the activities of the Revolutionary Guards, while Iran considers the presence of this powerful organisation on the US sanctions list a deal-breaker.
As well as being Iran’s most formidable security and military organisation, the elite force also runs a business empire. Iran is concerned that the terrorist designation will deprive the country of economic benefits under any nuclear accord and insists that it be removed.
Analysts have warned that Biden may not be able to do this as it could further complicate US domestic politics.
Borrell said there “are decisions that have to be taken in Tehran and Washington. But we agreed on the resumption of the negotiations between Iran and the US, facilitated by my team to try to solve the last outstanding issues.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said that Tehran hoped the US would be “realistic, fair” and “responsible and committed.”
The state-owned Tehran Times posted a photograph of Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, in a hotel lobby with Iranian Ambassador to Qatar Hamidreza Dehghani, for the resumption of the nuclear talks.
US Special Representative for Iran Rob Malley, also, arrived in Qatar on Monday ahead of the talks.
Qatar’s Foreign Ministry later issued a statement saying it “welcomed” hosting the talks. It said they aimed to re-establish the nuclear deal “in a way that supports and enhances security, stability, and peace in the region and open new horizons for broader regional cooperation and dialogue with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
A version of this article appears in print in the 30 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.