Waiting on Tehran

Manal Lotfy in London , Tuesday 9 Aug 2022

EU negotiators are awaiting political decisions in Washington and Tehran after submitting a final text of the nuclear deal with Iran, writes Manal Lotfy

Waiting on Tehran


“It is decision time in Washington and Tehran,” EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell announced as he said a “final text” of the revised nuclear deal with Iran had been presented to the two capitals after “what can be negotiated was negotiated” with Iran.

Both Washington and Tehran confirmed that they are examining the revised text of the nuclear deal and that their decisions will be issued in the coming days.

European diplomats stated that the negotiations, which took place in Vienna in July and August, were difficult and detailed and that the final revised text was 25 pages long.

If there is an agreement, the foreign ministers of the EU, US, Iran, Russia, and China are expected to return to Vienna to formally restore the 2015 nuclear accord in what will be a major success for US foreign policy under the Biden administration.

Despite optimism in Brussels, the EU knows that the final decision in Iran and the US will involve domestic factors that may complicate the outcome. EU diplomats are therefore awaiting “political decisions” on the outstanding issues after negotiators in Vienna agreed that the text thrashed out between Iranian, US, and European representatives over the past few days was the final text and could not be amended further.

European negotiators hope that the new adjustments will address the reservations of the Iranian and US delegations that have hindered reaching an agreement since the talks began 15 months ago.

In a clear warning, Borrell said that the final draft was the last effort to make the negotiations a success. He tweeted on Monday that “negotiators used these days of discussions and proximity talks between the US and Iran to fine-tune and address, with technical adjustments, a handful of issues remaining in the text that I have put on the table last July 21, as coordinator of the #JCPOA nuclear deal,” a reference to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name of the deal.

“What can be negotiated has been negotiated, and it’s now in a final text. However, behind every technical issue and every paragraph lies a political decision that needs to be taken in the capitals. If these answers are positive, then we can sign this deal,” Borrell said.

Washington and Tehran, which blame each other for the stalemate, entered the talks playing down expectations of a breakthrough. But US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, who was also a lead negotiator on the 2015 deal, has been in Vienna over the past few days and has been consulted by the EU team.

“For our part, our position is clear: we stand ready to quickly conclude a deal on the basis of the EU proposals,” a spokesperson for the US State Department said, suggesting the deal’s restoration was up to Iran. Another US official described the new draft as “the best and only basis on which to reach a deal.”

Mikhail Ulyanov, the lead Russian negotiator, was also optimistic, stating that the draft presented by the EU grants Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear programme.

“If there is no opposition to the ‘final text’ draft, the nuclear agreement will be revived,” he said, adding that Russia had supported the amendments to the text proposed by the EU.

But Iran was more circumspect in its response. An Iranian Foreign Ministry official told local news agencies that “relative progress” was made at the talks, adding that Tehran still had “serious concerns” about the US failing to meet its commitments.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said in a telephone conversation with Borrell on Monday that “any final agreement should meet the rights and interests of the Iranian nation and guarantee sustainable and effective removal of sanctions.”

Another Iranian official was quoted by the state news agency IRNA as saying that Tehran “is not at a stage to talk about finalising the deal.” The official added that Iran “will convey its additional views and considerations after more comprehensive discussions in Tehran.”

After the talks ended on Monday, Iran’s Chief Negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani headed to Tehran for consultations, according to Iranian state media.

The 2015 nuclear deal collapsed when former US president Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned it in 2018 and imposed waves of crippling sanctions on Iran. Tehran responded by ramping up its nuclear activity, and it is now enriching uranium close to weapons grade.

US President Joe Biden said he would re-join the deal if Iran agreed to return to compliance with the agreement, but Tehran has insisted it first needs guarantees from Washington that no future administration will be able again to unilaterally withdraw from the deal.

The Biden administration has stressed that it will uphold its obligations under the deal but that it cannot provide a guarantee for future administrations.

A European diplomat told the US Politico website that negotiators in Brussels had worked out “economic assurances” that will provide Iran with the opportunity to profit financially from the deal even if a new US administration withdraws from the pact again.

One such assurance that negotiators are working on is a temporary continuation of contracts for companies doing business in Iran.

Another major hurdle that has held up a final deal involved Iran’s request to remove its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the US Foreign Terrorist Organisations list.

Biden said that he would keep the IRGC under sanctions for now. The terrorist designation was imposed by Trump in 2019, in addition to numerous other terrorism and human-rights sanctions on Iranian institutions and individuals that are not related to the nuclear programme.

According to a senior EU diplomat, Tehran has agreed to set aside the demand and to discuss the matter in separate talks with Washington.

Iran also insists that UN watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) must drop a long-standing probe into past nuclear activities before a new nuclear deal.

The new draft text will not answer outstanding questions by the IAEA into the past nuclear programme, an EU official explained. “It is a process between Iran and the agency. There is no link between the two.”

Iran has been asking the IAEA to close its investigation into the origins of nuclear traces found at three sites. So far, the IAEA has said it has been given no credible explanation by Iran for the traces but has said that its 35-member board of governors will close the inquiry if one is provided.

Iran fears the IAEA may use the inquiry’s continued existence as a lever to demand wider access to Iranian sites beyond the terms set out in the nuclear agreement.

“We are very close, but we are not there yet. There are compromises on many sticking points; therefore, the political leadership in Washington and Tehran will have to decide in the coming days,” a European diplomat familiar with the talks told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“In my opinion, we are in the best position to reach a deal since the negotiations began last year. I am hopeful,” he added.

After the election of Biden, the EU sought to play a positive role in reviving the agreement with Iran. According to European diplomats, the ball moves now from Brussels to Tehran and Washington. Neither side wants to be blamed for the collapse of the deal.

Although segments of the political elite in both Iran and the US do not want to revive the nuclear deal, there are serious fears that any failure will heighten political and military escalation in the Middle East.

The Biden administration will not want to bear the responsibility for a military escalation in the Middle East or the absence of international monitoring arrangements on Iranian nuclear facilities that could open the region to a nuclear arms race.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi will not want to waste the opportunity to start a new page with Washington and to improve the economic conditions of millions of Iranians.

A renewed nuclear deal would enable Iran to sell its oil freely on global markets, possibly reaching 2.5 million barrels a day and representing an additional $3 billion per month of revenue on top of existing exports.

A revived deal would also help Tehran regain access to its frozen assets abroad, worth an estimated $100 billion.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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