Watching closely: Hopeful signals emerge out of Vienna nuclear Talks

The first week of the negotiating process among world powers to restore the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement has concluded, with all parties hopeful that dialogue can continue from the initial meeting in Vienna. Throughout this past week, experts from the remaining signatories of the agreement, Iran, the UK, France, Russia, China, Germany and the EU have met in the Vienna Grand Hotel while communicating messages to the US delegation in their hotel across the road. While both the Iranian and American administrations have indicated that they aim to resurrect the deal, which the United States abandoned through Donald Trump in 2018, an intricate choreography of moves will be needed to achieve this. According to briefed personnel, although the US was open to direct talks, Tehran preferred to operate indirectly through the European delegates. 

Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Seyed Araghchi, has clearly stated that he sees no point in continuing dialogue unless the US was serious about its commitments

Tuesday’s meeting resulted in the formulation of two working groups. One with the aim of listing the sanctions that the US began imposing in 2018 that would need to be lifted, while the other group is focused on the measures that Iran needs to implement to return to full compliance with the deal. This is despite clashes between the US and Iran regarding which sanctions should be lifted. While Foreign Minister Zarif stated that, “all Trump sanctions were anti-JCPOA & must be removed—w/o distinction between arbitrary designations”, the US State Department declared that it aims to lift “sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA”. Thus, it seems the Biden Administration is holding out the prospect of complete sanction relief, as this would not include sanctions formally unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program, such as sanctions put in place by the Trump Administration in 2020 relating to human rights and terrorism. Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Seyed Araghchi, has clearly stated that he sees no point in continuing dialogue unless the US was serious about its commitments. “In our view, America has to take its actions in one step, then we’ll verify, and then Iran will follow with its actions. How verification will happen is another point of our discussion”. He added that “Lifting all US sanctions imposed under the previous US president is a necessary step in reviving the joint comprehensive plan of action [the Iran deal], and only after verifying the lifting of those sanctions Iran will be ready to stop its remedial actions and return to full implementation of the deal.”

Meanwhile, the American Delegation is being led by Special Envoy Robert Malley, who assisted with the original agreement in 2015. “It would not serve the interests of America or American citizens if there were growing tension in the Middle East because of an expanding Iranian nuclear program. Getting back into the deal is very much, in our estimation, in the interest of the United States and of its citizens”, Malley told NPR radio Tuesday. Moreover, according to US State Department spokesperson Ned Price, compliance was “necessary but insufficient,” due to how the US eventually aims to achieve a more concrete deal, for which the JCPOA will act as a baseline. “That task alone won’t be easy. It won’t be simple,” he said. “These talks will not be uncomplicated, but again we are encouraged by the fact that they are taking place”. He also downplayed prospects that there could be direct talks between the Iranian and American delegation in this first round of discussions. However, he did not rule out this possibility completely. He also reiterated that the US position remains focused on achieving a step-by-step roadmap to mutual compliance with the 2015 agreement. “I think what essentially ruled out are the maximalist demands that the United States do everything first and only, in turn, would Iran then act. I don’t think anyone is under the impression that that would be a viable proposal”, he said.

Attempts to revive the deal have not been left unnoticed by opponents of the agreement

Attempts to revive the deal have not been left unnoticed by opponents of the agreement. While the negotiations were taking place, Israeli special forces used “sticky bombs” in an attack against an Iranian ship in the Red Sea. Meanwhile, Republicans have made their voice heard by penning a letter that stresses that any political changes could, once again, jeopardize the agreement. The letter, which was addressed to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, declared that Congressional Republicans are “pledging to oppose, and to work to reverse, any sanctions relief for Iran.” They have stated that they will only support the agreement is if Iran submits to the demands made by the previous Trump Administration. This seems to reinforce Iranian skepticism and trauma created by the Trump’s Administration withdrawal from the deal in 2018. Thus, such obstacles from domestic US opposition and America’s ally Israel could be set to undermine the agreement. Nevertheless, talks seem to have already resulted in positive indicators and reductions of tensions, with Iran releasing a South-Korean flagged tanker three months after its Revolutionary Guards seized it. Iran’s deputy foreign minister indicated that talks were still “far from getting to a concrete conclusion but I can say we are progressing well”. Such feelings have been reflected by Enrique Mora, the top EU official in charge of chairing the JCPOA’s governing joint commission on Friday, stating that talks have so far been “constructive and results-oriented”. The US State Department also evidenced how the talks are still in their “early days”. 

Following this initial constructive dialogue, a continuation of full-scale talks between foreign ministry deputies is expected to resume Wednesday, with technical discussions among officials continuing in the interim. Ultimately, the talks are taking place ahead of the Iranian presidential election in June, in which incumbent reformist President Hassan Rouhani is unable to run again due to him having reached his two-term limit. With a more hard-line President expected to be elected, this could prove challenging to future diplomatic progress. However, Malley has stated that the US will “negotiate with whoever is in power in Iran” and that “we can’t ignore the reality of an election, but we can’t let it dictate our pace either.” 

The Editor: Nader Di Michele

Nader is a third-year Politics BSc student at King’s College London (KCL). He has significant experience conducting various geopolitical risk analysis, particulalry focusing on Middle Eastern domestic and international politics. His main focus is Iranian and American foreign policy, especially regarding the role of sanctions. Nader also has well-founded knoweldge of the various risks and future opportunities of ESG finance

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