The most important talks between international powers and Iran since Donald Trump’s campaign to dismantle the agreement on the country’s nuclear programme got under way this week – and timing has become a key factor.
The meeting in Vienna of signatories Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran, with the European Union in the chair, is aimed at paving the way for the Biden administration to return the US to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action); it is the crucial step needed to salvage the deal.
A US delegation was present in the Austrian capital, but did not directly participate in the conference. Tehran has continued with the stance that there will be no direct negotiation with Washington until the punitive sanctions imposed by the Trump administration are lifted.
But the presence of Biden’s special envoy to Iran, Robert Malley (and his team), means that a choreographed sequence of moves by America and Iran, for both sides to return to compliance on the agreement, is under way.
There has been growing concern that, despite President Biden’s stated policy of returning to the JCPOA, vital time and opportunities were being lost with no sign of real progress since the US election last November. In that time Iran, too, has been stepping away from the deal by enriching uranium levels and restricting access for UN inspectors.
Tuesday’s meeting, however, appears to present a structured path forward. All parties agreed to the forming of two working groups. One would focus on the US lifting sanctions, the other on Iran getting back to compliance on uranium.
Malley said the process will “identify the steps that the US has to take and verify the steps that Iran is going to have to take”. Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabei stated that “we are confident that we are on the right track, and if America’s will, seriousness and honesty is proven, it could be a good sign for a better future for this agreement”. Rabei stressed that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani are in agreement over the talks and “everything can happen really quickly in a series of independent but connected synchronised steps”.
But it is in the interest of some countries and political factions for this impasse to continue. Israel and Saudi Arabia, long-term adversaries of Iran, have lobbied hard against the nuclear deal. Benjamin Netanyahu declared in Jerusalem that “the danger is that Iran will return, this time with an international imprimatur, to a path that will allow it to develop a nuclear arsenal on our doorstep on this very day ... We cannot go back to the dangerous nuclear plan, because a nuclear Iran is an existential threat.”
On the same day the Israeli premier issued his warning and the Vienna meeting was taking place, an Iranian ship was hit with a limpet mine on the Red Sea, off the coast of Yemen. The New York Times reported that Israel has notified the US that it had carried out the attack.
It has been claimed that the vessel, the Saviz, was an intelligence gathering base for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and part of Tehran’s operations to aid the Houthis in Yemen’s civil war. Iran maintains that it was on an anti-piracy mission.
The ship, however, has been present in those waters for more than two years, with its presence known to regional and western states. There is no discernible reason why the attack was carried out on Tuesday, unless it was an attempt to draw a reaction from the Iranians, which may impact on the Vienna talks.
There are those in Iran, too, who are not keen on an early resolution. Hardliners who had opposed the JCPOA from the start won a sweeping victory in the parliamentary election last year, overturning the control gained by reformists in the previous election.
The reformists had won in a groundswell of optimism which had followed the signing of the nuclear deal in 2015. President Rouhani, whose government signed the deal, also won resoundingly in the presidential poll which followed.
The reason for the parliamentary triumph of the hardliners last year was not a huge surge in support. It was because disillusioned reformist voters stayed away. And one of the reasons for the disillusionment was that the promise of economic and social gains from the agreement failed to materialise.
Iran’s presidential elections are due in June. Rouhani, having served two terms, cannot stand again, and the hardliners appear confident that their candidate will win the presidency.
The hardliners have been clamouring to play their part in the negotiations. A group of conservative MPs have demanded that there should be a minimum of two months verification period to ensure that American sanctions are lifted, before Iran takes its step towards compliance. And any subsequent steps taken by the government must have parliamentary approval.
There are additional demands from them, such as a guarantee from the international powers, including the US, that Iran is allowed to export at least 2.3 million barrels of oil per day: billions of dollars of Iranian assets held overseas are released, and at least £4bn of international transactions are allowed to take place each year without hindrance.
These conditions are aimed at ensuring that the nuclear deal remains in limbo until the presidential election, which would suit the hardliners who, with a victory, can tailor the negotiating stance to fit their aims.
The next set of talks is due to take place on Friday. Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister who is leading the country’s delegation and was heavily involved in drafting the JCPOA, wanted to stress that the “Islamic Republic of Iran is fully ready to stop its retaliation nuclear activity and return to its full commitments as soon as US sanctions are lifted and verified.”
It will not be easy to get to that point quickly. But there appears to be acceptance from both sides that more time should not be lost to save the landmark agreement, which took prolonged and hard negotiations to achieve.