Iran Plays Hardball in Vienna

Iran Plays Hardball in Vienna

Julia Masterson and Kelsey Davenport

Iran’s hardline approach to recent negotiations in Vienna raised further concerns about prospects for diplomatic efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Talks resumed Nov. 29 in Vienna after a five-month hiatus, during which Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took office and assembled his team. While the Raisi administration’s rhetoric ahead of the negotiations suggested a harder line than his predecessor, Iran’s demands for “sweeping changes” to the text of the agreement and its disinterest in honoring progress made during the first six rounds of talks may ultimately jeopardize the likelihood of restoring the JCPOA by undercutting negotiations in Vienna. It is not certain how long the United States and the other parties to the deal may be willing to meet with Iran in Vienna if they are unable to reach common agreement or if Tehran is perceived as not negotiating in good faith.

Adding to that, midway through the weeklong session, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran had begun operating 166 advanced IR-6 centrifuges at its Fordow enrichment facility in flagrant violation of the deal, which dictates that Iran enrich and accumulate uranium using only first-generation IR-1 machines at its Natanz plant. (see below for details.)

Iran’s rapidly advancing nuclear activities could soon threaten the practical nonproliferation benefits of the JCPOA itself, should it be restored, thereby weakening the agreement. At a Dec. 4 briefing, a senior State Department official remarked that the United States “[cannot] accept a situation in which Iran accelerates its nuclear program and slow-walks its nuclear diplomacy,” and said time is running out to resurrect the agreement.

Iran first began violating the JCPOA in May 2019 – one year after the United States unilaterally withdrew and reimposed sanctions that had been lifted under the agreement. Talks to restore mutual compliance with the accord began in April 2021, in Vienna, but stalled in June after Raisi’s election. In this most recent round, as with the earlier talks, Iran has refused to meet with the United States directly. Rather, the two delegations have engaged in negotiations via the other members of the deal – China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom ­– and the European Union, whose senior foreign policy chiefs coordinate the talks.

As talks resumed, European Union External Action Service Deputy Secretary-General Enrique Mora, who is chairing negotiations on behalf of the EU, expressed that he “[felt] extremely positive about what I have seen today,” but his optimism does not appear to be shared by all of the parties.

Negotiating teams departed for their capitals Dec. 3 to prepare for an eighth round of discussions set to begin Dec. 9 and consider two drafts put forth by Tehran aimed to clarify steps for the United States to lift sanctions and for Iran to revert its nuclear activities back to compliance with the JCPOA.

Iran took a hard line when it came to sanctions relief, as was expected, and its draft proposal likely demands that the United States lift all sanctions imposed since 2018, including those separate from the nuclear file. A background briefing released Dec. 5 by a senior Iranian official stressed Tehran’s view that “all sanctions imposed in the framework of the maximum pressure policy are designed with the clear aim of eliminating the JCPOA, and therefore all of these sanctions are related to the JCPOA” and must be lifted. Addressing mounting concerns over Iran’s nuclear activities, the official countered that “one cannot expect [Iran] to stop its compensatory steps – which were not a first step but a response to sanctions – until the manner of lifting sanctions is clarified and implemented.”

The “U.S. reluctance to give up on sanctions altogether is the most important challenge to the progress of the talks,” the Iranian official said.

Initial indicators that Tehran might agree to build upon the progress made during the first six rounds of talks faded throughout the week. Iran’s draft proposals purportedly exemplify a clear divergence between the negotiating platforms of Raisi and his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani. After Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister and chief negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani shared Iran’s new draft proposals in Vienna, senior European diplomats assessed that “Iran is breaking with almost all of the difficult compromises reached in months of tough negotiations and is demanding substantial changes to the text.” They said it is “not clear how these new gaps in the negotiations could be closed in a realistic timeframe on the basis of the Iranian amendments.”

Iran’s drafts signify it has walked back “any of the compromises that Iran had floated during the sixth round of talks, pocket[ed] all of the compromises that others and the U.S., in particular, had made, and then ask[ed] for more,” the senior U.S. State Department official remarked at the Dec. 4 briefing. The official noted that several of Iran’s proposals raise issues that are beyond the scope of the JCPOA, suggesting that the Raisi team could aim to renegotiate parts of the deal, including with respect to what sanctions are lifted.

Washington stated in October that the U.S. delegation is prepared to negotiate beyond the JCPOA if Iran’s demands exceed the parameters of the accord. However, the United States is disinterested at the current stage in offering concessions to advance or support talks. Ahead of the seventh round, State Department spokesman Ned Price clarified that the United States is “not prepared to take unilateral steps solely for the benefit of greasing the wheel,” nor is it considering offering Iran confidence-building measures or other incentives for negotiation. The United States has repeatedly stressed that the time left to restore the nuclear deal is not indefinite, particularly as Iran’s nuclear advances threaten the nonproliferation benefits envisaged by the accord.

Despite bleak readouts on the seventh round by U.S. and European officials, sources close to the Iranian negotiating team insist that Iran’s demands are not maximalist but are rather balanced and made largely in accordance with the JCPOA. A senior Iranian Foreign Ministry official confirmed Dec. 5 that Tehran “consider[s] the proposed texts as negotiable drafts,” and that it expects the other parties to the deal to return to Vienna with their own “clear proposals.”

Responding to growing frustrations over the seventh round of talks and the outlook for progress, Russian Ambassador to International Organizations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov reminded Dec. 3 that “disappointment seems to be premature.” He stressed that in multilateral diplomacy there is the rule: nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

Courtesy: Arms Control Association

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