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US Iran Back to the Challenging Nuclear Talks in Vienna

U.S. and Iran

US Iran Back to the Challenging Nuclear Talks in Vienna

Late last month, talks between Iran and the other original signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) resumed in Vienna. They are now in their seventh round following the hiatus resulting from Ebrahim Raisi becoming Iran’s president. Many experts have low expectations. Western diplomats believe new Iranian demands are unrealistic. Likewise, Iran’s side has concerns about Washington’s commitment to staying in a reconstituted JCPOA which the US can’t assuage.

The negotiations in Vienna are challenging. Iran’s domestic politics do impact the situation. The fact that Iran now has a hardliner president matters. Following almost six months of no negotiations, Raisi needs to demonstrate to a domestic audience that his team of negotiators is less willing to trust, or compromise with, western governments.  

The growth of Iran’s nuclear activities is another factor. Despite Israel’s sabotage against Iranian nuclear facilities and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s killing, the Islamic Republic’s know-how and ability to rebuild facilities have ensured the expansion of Iranian nuclear activities while the US stays out of the JCPOA.  

“Iran’s nuclear advances are bringing them quite close to producing weapons-usable material and this could eventually convince the US and its partners that Iran isn’t serious about diplomacy,” explained Dr. Nicholas Miller, an Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth, in an interview with Newslooks.

However, there are also some grounds for optimism in Vienna which remind us that the nuclear deal’s demise is not inevitable.

It was a positive sign that at the beginning of this month Iran’s chief diplomat Hossein Amirabdollahian declared that the talks were “proceeding with seriousness and sanctions removal as fundamental priority” and that Tehran wants “rational, sober [and] result-oriented dialogue.”

The Raisi administration previously indicated intentions to begin the nuclear talks from scratch. But the Islamic Republic’s new negotiators are, according to some sources, determined to build on the previous six rounds that took place during Rouhani’s presidency. In other words, all that the talks earlier this year achieved can be built on if all parties demonstrate some degree of flexibility in their positions.

To be sure, a Republican president may enter the Oval Office in 2025 or 2029 and trash any revived nuclear accord, just as Trump did with the JCPOA in 2018. Iran’s understanding of this factor has dimmed the prospects for successful diplomacy salvaging the 2015 deal. Nonetheless, mindful of how much Iran’s economic problems have worsened, it would be logical for Tehran to decide in favor of accepting a minimum of three years of sanctions relief if no sanctions relief whatsoever is the only alternative. As Dr. Miller said, “Iran’s economy is in bad shape and would substantially benefit from sanctions relief, even if its duration is unsure.” 

Indeed, Iran’s economic circumstances have become dire. The country of 86 million people desperately needs sanctions relief. Iran’s unemployment rate is soaring while food prices have been rising significantly. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought more economic havoc to Iran too. According to the country’s Petroleum Minister, Javad Owji, Iran’s oil and gas industry requires new investments to the tune of USD 160 billion. “If we fail to pay for development, we will become an importer of [petroleum] products in the future,” he warned.

Boding positively for the hopes of a revived deal is the fact that both Washington and Tehran want to avoid a war with the other. Reaching a new understanding on the nuclear file through a salvaged JCPOA would serve both countries’ security interests. Although Biden’s administration made a strategic error in not bringing the US back into the historic nuclear accord at the beginning of his presidency, achieving a diplomatic win in Vienna that reconstitutes the JCPOA would still help the president advance his foreign policy agenda.

At the end of the day, Biden realizes that a war against Iran would not exactly be a picnic. He wants to be remembered as a president who made good on his word to wind down the US military’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, not a commander-in-chief who brought America into what could possibly be the bloodiest Middle Eastern war of the 21st century if ever waged.  

“Neither Iran nor the United States want this to end in military conflict, a scenario whose odds would go up substantially if no deal is reached,” said Dr. Miller. “With the said, Iran may calculate it can weather the economic situation and deter an attack.”

As the world pays close attention to the Vienna talks, there are many factors giving us reason to be pessimistic about a breakthrough resolving the nuclear impasse. At this point, the gaps between Washington and Tehran’s negotiating positions remain huge, particularly over questions concerning mechanisms for protecting Iranian interests in the event of a unilateral American withdrawal down the road, as well as the scope and sequence of sanctions relief. Yet we must avoid prematurely concluding that such obstacles have no chance of being overcome. More By Giorgio Cafiero

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Newslooks.com

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