The United States and Iran will meet for indirect talks in Vienna on Tuesday to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Jowharspoke with Sahil Shah, a politician at the European Leadership Network, where he leads the organization’s efforts to strengthen nuclear and regional diplomacy with Iran.
What can we expect from the conversations?
Tuesday’s convening of the Joint Commission is the first time since September last year that the remaining participants in the Joint Master Plan 2015 (JCPOA), or Iran’s Nuclear Power Agreement, will meet in person. While participating countries and the EU have met a number of times over the past six months to discuss issues related to the deal, this meeting is an important milestone as there is not only a clear alignment of everyone to re-establish the deal but also clear political will to identify the tactics for getting there.
This development comes after weeks of public posting and European mediation behind the scenes to try to identify a gesture-by-gesture strategy where Tehran would freeze and perhaps roll back some nuclear progress in exchange for limited sanctions. Unfortunately, there were issues related to the process – there were questions about whether they would agree before or at the meeting on what gestures to include – and content, as it was difficult to identify where the floor in the Iranian requirements was cut at all with a ceiling for what the United States was willing to offer.
Tomorrow’s “proximity talks” are a face-saving way out of that game of chicken so that Iran can come up with a roadmap with the remaining JCPOA parties and gain American views and ultimately buy in through European intermediaries. Given that the United States is still not a member of the deal, US diplomats will not be informally or formally present at tomorrow’s talks but will be stationed somewhere nearby. While the meeting will be convened at the Deputy State Secretary and Political Director level, it will ultimately be up to the experts to come up with clear avenues for the US sanctions solution and Iranian implementation of nuclear restrictions.
While the restoration of nuclear restrictions appears to be simpler – as they will be technically verified and monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – there are questions that Iran acknowledges need to be answered related to the research and development it has engaged in as well as how it will: re-establish a continuity of knowledge for the IAEA. Although these issues deserve discussion, they should be resolvable. Senior nuclear officials in Iran have said they are prepared to “freeze” expanded nuclear operations each time an agreement is reached and that it would take about two to three months to reduce all expanded operations and return to full implementation of the JCPOA.
On the other hand, the US path towards full implementation may prove to be somewhat more difficult to map, as the Trump administration deliberately placed additional sanctions on top of those that already existed before the JCPOA was achieved. Abolishing these sanctions will be crucial [getting] Tehran’s agreement to return to full nuclear restrictions – because if they remain in place, nothing would change, as Iran would receive little or no economic benefits from its banks cut off from the world and its oil trade and other important economic sectors that are heavily embargo. Biden’s team must also be able to resolve this, but they are likely to face harsh criticism from opponents of the deal in Washington.
How can the Biden administration’s attitude differ from Obama’s?
The Biden team includes many members of the Obama administration who personally spent thousands of collective hours negotiating the terms of the JCPOA and then implementing them. These individuals still see the benefits of the deal, but they face various geopolitical realities – including the urgent need for regional downsizing in several hotspots in the Middle East, a weakened transatlantic alliance with Europe and a more controversial relationship with Russia. and China, which they need to work on to get it right. In addition, there is an increasingly vocal voice in Washington pushing the Biden administration to find ways to use what they see as “leverage” achieved during the Trump era to get more out of Tehran.
However, the administration deeply understands that useful leverage does not actually exist and would prove pointless in all ongoing negotiations to get a “stronger and longer” deal, to steal a phrase from US Secretary of State Tony Blinken. As a result, the Biden administration, including the president himself, has been saying publicly for several months that the United States and Iran must return to the JCPOA to take the basic, enabling step to create space for dialogue on other issues. Once this has happened, they will need to think about how to involve Iran and other countries to a greater extent in security issues such as the increasing prevalence of ballistic missiles throughout the region.
The absolute truth of the matter is that we can not erase the fact that the last four years of Trump as president really happened. During the Obama administration, the issue of trust rose in a direction where the United States and others did not trust Iran and therefore the entire JCPOA built around this premise. Now that the United States is violating the terms and undermining the UN Security Council resolution in support of the United States, the United States and thus its European allies are no longer as credible. In turn, it will also increase the pressure on the Biden administration from Iran and others to meaningfully deliver on their JCPOA commitments, which is a sharp departure from the Obama administration, which considered the sanctions to be lifted on paper but not in practice. In fact, Iran calls for the need to “verify” that sanctions lifting and relief actually work, which means that there is more of an obligation for the Biden administration to put in the institutional scaffolding needed to make the economic quid pro quo more sustainable.
How much is a factor that is Iran’s next choice?
The forthcoming elections in Iran are certainly a key factor for officials meeting in Vienna to consider as time is of the essence. There is a clear concern that if this process is too slow and we end up in a situation where the implementation of mutual obligations takes a long time, the sustainability of the process will be questionable depending on the outcome of the election. During the election campaign, Iran does not usually make major strategic decisions and heavy lifting does not usually occur during the subsequent transition period. But if the broader contours and time frames for a reciprocal return can be negotiated now, its implementation could go further than the June election.
Even more relevant than the election is the fact that the current Iranian administration is under pressure from Parliament, which passed a law forcing the government to expand its nuclear activities and limit their oversight. In addition, Iran and the IAEA entered into a three-month technical cooperation agreement, which we are already halfway through. It is not entirely clear how much political space the Iranian administration needs to expand this agreement, so it would be best to get the JCPOA on the right track as soon as possible.
Due to this pressure, Iranian officials have been saying privately and publicly for several weeks that they prefer to move quickly and return to full implementation of the deal immediately rather than a step-by-step strategy. Iran strongly believes that this is the easiest way forward, perhaps by introducing a new “implementation day” through which both sides need to live up to their full obligations. Regardless of their rather maximalist positions in recent weeks, both sides must show flexibility in how the JCPOA’s restoration is synchronized, especially in view of domestic policy considerations in Washington and Tehran.