Indirect US-Iran talks on the nuclear deal: What can we expect?

·7-min read

The United States and Iran will meet for indirect talks in Vienna on Tuesday aimed at reviving the landmark 2015 nuclear deal. FRANCE 24 spoke with Sahil Shah, policy fellow at the European Leadership Network, where he leads the organisation's efforts to strengthen nuclear and regional diplomacy with Iran.

What can we expect from the talks?

Tuesday’s convening of the Joint Commission is the first time since last September that the remaining participants in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, will meet in person. While participating countries and the EU have met over the last six months a number of times to discuss issues related to the deal, this meeting is an important milestone because there is not only clear alignment by all on the goal to restore the deal but also clear political willpower to identify the tactics to get there.

This development comes after weeks of public posturing and behind-the-scenes European mediation to try to identify a gesture-for-gesture approach in which Tehran would freeze and perhaps roll back certain nuclear advances in exchange for limited sanctions relief. Unfortunately, there were problems related to process – there were questions over whether they would agree before or at the meeting on what gestures would be included – and substance, as it was difficult to identify where the floor of the Iranian demands at all intersected with the ceiling of what the US was willing to offer.

Tomorrow’s “proximity talks” are a face-saving way out of that game of chicken so that Iran can hash out a roadmap with the remaining JCPOA parties and get US views and, ultimately, buy-in through European intermediaries. Given the United States is still not a member of the deal, American diplomats will not be informally or formally present at tomorrow’s talks but stationed somewhere close by. While the meeting will be convened at the deputy foreign minister and political director level, it will be ultimately down to the experts to hash out clear pathways on US sanctions-lifting and Iranian implementation of nuclear restrictions.

While the restoration of nuclear limits seems to be more straightforward – as it will be able to be technically verified and monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – there are questions that Iran acknowledges need to be answered related to research and development it has engaged in as well as how it will re-establish a continuity of knowledge for the IAEA. While these issues merit discussion, they should be resolvable. Senior nuclear officials in Iran have said that they are prepared to “freeze” expanded nuclear activities any time an agreement is reached and that it would take around two to three months to scale back all expanded activities and return to full implementation of the JCPOA.

On the other hand, the US path to full implementation may prove to be slightly more difficult to chart as the Trump administration purposefully layered additional sanctions designations on top of the ones that already existed before the JCPOA was reached. Dismantling these sanctions will be crucial to [getting] agreement from Tehran to return to full nuclear restrictions – because if they remain in place nothing would change, as Iran would receive little to no economic benefits with its banks cut off from the world and its oil trade and other vital economic sectors heavily embargoed. Biden’s team must be able to resolve this as well, but they will likely face tough criticism by opponents to the deal in Washington.

How might the Biden administration's stance 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 subsequently implementing them. These individuals still see the deal’s merits, but they are being faced with different geopolitical realities – including the urgent need for regional de-escalation in multiple flash points in the Middle East, a weakened transatlantic alliance with Europe, and a more adversarial relationship with Russia and China, who they need to work with to get this right. On top of it, there is an increasingly loud chorus of voices in Washington who are pressuring the Biden administration to find ways to utilise what they see as “leverage” gained during the Trump era to get more out of Tehran.

However, the administration deeply understands that usable leverage does not actually exist and would prove futile in any current negotiations to gain 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, have been publicly saying for months that the US and Iran need to return to the JCPOA in order to have the foundational, enabling step in place to generate the space for dialogue on other issues. Once this happens, they are going to have to think about how to engage Iran and other countries more widely on security issues such as the increasing prevalence of ballistic missiles across the region.

The absolute truth of the matter is that we cannot erase the fact that the last four years of Trump being president did indeed happen. During the Obama administration, the issue of trust travelled in one direction where the US and others did not trust Iran and therefore built the entire JCPOA around this premise. Now, with the US violating the deal’s terms and undermining the UN Security Council resolution that backs it, the US and, by extension, its European allies are no longer as credible. In turn, there is also going to be increased pressure on the Biden administration from Iran and others to meaningfully deliver on its JCPOA commitments, which is a stark departure from the Obama administration during which it was felt that sanctions were lifted on paper but not in practice. In fact, Iran is calling for the need to “verify” that sanctions lifting and relief is actually working, which means that there is more of an onus on the Biden administration to put in the institutional scaffolding needed to make the economic quid pro quo more durable.

How much of a factor are Iran's upcoming elections?

The upcoming elections in Iran are indeed a key factor for officials who are meeting in Vienna to consider because time is of the essence. There is an obvious concern that if this process moves forward too slowly and we get into a situation where implementation of mutual obligations takes a long time, the sustainability of the process will become questionable depending on the result of the election. During the electoral campaign, Iran usually does not make big strategic decisions and heavy lifting usually also does not occur in the subsequent transition period. However, if the wider contours and timeframe of a mutual return can be negotiated now, the implementation of this could go beyond the June election.

Even more pertinent than the election is the fact that the current Iranian administration is under pressure from the parliament, which passed a law obliging the government to expand its nuclear activities and limit oversight of them. In addition, Iran and the IAEA entered into a three-month technical cooperation agreement that we are already halfway through. It is not entirely clear how much political space the Iranian administration has to be extending this agreement, so it would be best to get the JCPOA on track as soon as possible.

Due to these pressures, Iranian officials have been privately and publicly saying for weeks now that they prefer to move quickly and go back to full implementation of the deal immediately rather than a step-by-step approach. Iran strongly feels that this is the easiest way forward, perhaps by setting a new “Implementation Day” by which both sides need to live up to their full obligations. Regardless of their rather maximalist positions over the last few weeks, both sides must show flexibility in how the JCPOA’s restoration is synchronised, especially given domestic political considerations in Washington and Tehran.