High stakes at the Vienna nuclear talks with Iran

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani (R) and members of his delegation are seen leaving the Coburg Palais, venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) meeting aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, in Vienna on December 3, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
The ongoing indirect US-Iran negotiations in Vienna on the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have thus far made little progress.اضافة اعلان

Already ailing when Ebrahim Raisi was elected to the Iranian presidency in June 2021, negotiations were effectively suspended by a new hardline government determined to jettison what was determined to be a “failed” negotiating strategy by former president Hassan Rouhani. 

Raisi and his colleagues know that the outcome of the talks, the latest round of which began on November 29, will shape Iran’s domestic and foreign relations for years to come. On a region and global map whose contours are shifting daily, Tehran’s negotiators must consider the wider political and strategic implications of their every move.

Domestic politics in Tehran (and in Washington) could ultimately torpedo the Vienna talks, but Raisi must consider the benefits of getting some kind of reasonable deal, even if doing so antagonizes his home base. The benefits might be not only economic but also geostrategic. Russia and China, whose influence in the region is crucial to Iran, want a deal even though they has backed the tough opening position that the Islamic republic adopted before talks were resumed. And despite their frustrations with Iran, Western European leaders must know that failed talks would leave the US and its allies with a choice between two bad alternatives: containing, but not halting, Iran’s expanding nuclear program or risking a major military confrontation. Therefore, European negotiators in Vienna are eager for Iran to show flexibility.

Tehran faces a dilemma: how to signal to Moscow, Beijing, Paris, London, and Berlin that it will somehow compromise while not appearing to abandon its demand that Washington end nearly all sanctions as a precondition for further talks.

It has so far failed to square this particular circle because the US and its European friends rejected Iran’s opening bid. 

In an October US State Department briefing, Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy for Iran, noted that “at some point, the JCPOA will have been so eroded because Iran will have made advances that cannot be reversed.” This is not, he explained, “a chronological clock, it’s a technological clock”. Coming from an analyst who has long brought a distinct blend of pragmatism and cautious optimism to his work, Malley’s assessment illuminates the fine line between Iran’s tactics and strategy.

At tactical level, Iran has increased the level and technological sophistication of its uranium enrichment program. And it has taken other related measures, all of which have been seen in Washington and other western capitals as a deliberate bid to pressure the US into making concessions. Presumably, Iran could reverse these measures if given compelling incentives to do so, not least of which would be the removal of the nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the Trump administration after it abandoned the JCPOA in 2018.

But Tehran could also be tempted to move toward creating a more threatening enrichment capacity. This shift has become possible because each step in the enrichment process shortens the time required to achieve higher enrichment levels, that is, moving from 15 percent enriched uranium to 30 percent takes far more time than moving from 60 percent (the current level of enrichment Tehran has achieved) to 90 percent. Thus the “technological” clock that Malley noted is inching closer to midnight. The Biden Administration knows this. Indeed, as far back as August, Malley seemed to up the ante by warning Iran that the US had “other options” if talks failed.

The White House’s engagement with Israel prior to the resumption of talks reportedly reinforced Israeli fears that the administration is ultimately not prepared to signal a credible threat to use military power against Iran.

Such implicit threats have almost always helped harden Iran’s stance, not only because Iranian leaders feel that maintaining a defiant stance is critical for domestic purposes, but also because they doubt that the Biden administration would risk a military conflict. 

In the week leading up to the resumption of talks, Iran’s lead negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani, laid out an extremely tough position, insisting that “we have no such thing as nuclear negotiations”, but rather “negotiations to remove unlawful and inhuman sanctions”. 

Underscoring this stance in an article titled “Operation Sanctions Defeat”, Raisi set out five preconditions for talks: that they focus solely on sanctions removal; that Washington “compensate” Tehran for financial losses suffered after the Trump White House pulled out of the JCPOA; that all non-JCPOA sanctions be lifted (including 1,500 sanctions imposed by the Trump administration); that a mechanism be created to verify sanctions removal; that Washington provide assurances that it would comply with any deal. 

Seeking further guarantees to deter Washington from reneging on an agreement, Kani insisted that European governments promise to trade with Iran regardless of the US position. These positions were reportedly laid out in two documents that the Iranian negotiating team submitted at the outset of the Vienna talks.

Whether the White House’s calculations prove correct remains to be seen. 
Much of the diplomatic action will pivot around Washington’s and Tehran’s competition to gain support from Moscow and China. This contest will be matched by Iran’s efforts to push or nudge European leaders closer to its position, or at least to get European negotiators to offer some kind of bridging proposals. Still, the fact that US and Iranian officials now assert that the ball is in the other country’s court suggests that this negotiating match may not be sustainable.

Without knowing if the other side has really reached the limits of what it will give, or is simply posturing, one or both sides could have an incentive to misrepresent how much a deal is worth to them. Such posturing can quickly lead to a collapse of negotiations.

Given persistent economic woes and a nationwide water shortage that recently prompted protests in Isfahan, Raisi cannot contain domestic unrest by relying on an eastern approach, one that many experts argue cannot substitute for trade with Western countries. To put it somewhat differently, for pragmatic hardliners, the purpose of reaching out to China and Russia is to enhance Iran’s negotiating leverage with a view to ending sanctions. Their task is to show on the home front that they are as much part of the “resistance” to Western powers as the ultra-conservatives, even as Raisi’s government strives to show Moscow, Beijing and Western governments that it is ready to make some compromises. 

Trying to walk this fine line, Iranian officials have insisted that they will not sacrifice Iran’s fundamental demands but that Tehran is also committed to remaining in the Vienna talks “as long as needed”.

Daniel Brumberg is a non-resident senior fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University, and a senior non-resident fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy.