In the first round of negotiations since last parting in June, Iran and the other signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China – met in Vienna, Austria to resume talks in hopes of reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. Under a new regime led by hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, Iran struck a uncompromising tone with negotiators while the remaining signatories fought to keep negotiations running.
In 2015, the United States, along with other members of the P5+1, and Iran agreed to a deal, which limited its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions. However, the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018 in an effort to launch a lackluster maximum pressure campaign against Tehran and ramped up economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Initially, Iran complied with the agreement after the U.S. withdrawal. After a year, though, Tehran became impatient and building up its nuclear program in breach of the agreement. The Biden administration came into office with the goal of reviving the deal. While negotiators, minus the United States upon Iranian refusal to negotiate directly with the Americans, are back at the table, it appears as though the nuclear deal talks are at an impasse.
Iran’s Demands Are Out of the Question
Iranian negotiators came in on the offensive for the seventh round of talks. Under its recently elected yet hardline regime, Iran is making nearly impossible demands, arguing, not without merit, that the United States is at fault for the current situation. For one, Iran demands the removal of all economic sanctions – not just the ones imposed on its nuclear program, but also those targeting Iran’s human rights, terror, and ballistic missile activities.
Iran is also seeking guarantees that the United States will never back out of the deal again, a promise that is impossible to make because of the nature of the United States’ political system. Only then will Iran come back into compliance with the nuclear deal. The Iranians have stated firmly that they want to revive the nuclear deal – even though it is not a priority for the Raisi regime – but contend that the United States must take the first step. The Iranians are unlikely to budge given their current demands, leaving the nuclear talks at an impasse.
Trying to Keep the Lights On
European diplomats walked away from last week’s negotiations with a more pessimistic view. A joint statement issued by British, French, and German negotiators noted that “Tehran is walking back almost all of the difficult compromises crafted after many months of hard work, and demands major changes to the text.” From their perspective, the future of the talks are not promising.
The United States’ European partners have been instrumental in the meetings with Iranian officials, as the United States, while maintaining diplomatic staff in Vienna as the talks resume, are not taking part in the talks as Iran refused to negotiate with the Americans. However, as the European diplomats observed, unless Tehran’s position changes, the talks have little chance in succeeding.
Not Even at the Table
The Biden administration came into office willing to re-enter the JCPOA. However, it is evident that American patience with Iran is beginning to wear thin. Secretary of State Antony Blinken summarized American feelings toward the talks: “What we’ve seen in the last couple of days is that Iran right now does not seem to be serious about doing what’s needed to return to compliance, which is why we ended this round of talks in Vienna,” he commented on Thursday.
U.S. and European officials have been warning for a while that time is running out. Biden administration has noted that diplomacy, though the preferred method, is not the United States’ option for preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons. As American and likely European patience runs out the more Iran balks, the more the talks will remain at an impasse.
No Right to Exist?
A complicating factor for the United States in reviving the Iran nuclear deal is its strong partnership with Israel. Israel is increasingly concerned about the advances Iran has made on its nuclear program and regional activity. Israel, a nuclear-armed country, and Iran are mortal enemies as Israel views Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat sine Iran does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Israel has reacted strongly to the news of a potentially revived deal, imploring its partners in the United States and Europe to halt negotiations. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett stated emphatically that Israel is not part of the negotiations and, therefore, not bound by the deal and stressed that Iran doe not deserve the diplomatic option. Without the Israel’s support – arguably the country with the most to lose if Iran does acquire nuclear weapons – the talks will remain at an impasse.
Charting Our Own Course
The United States’ Gulf Arab allies, much like Israel, are also concerned about Iran’s nuclear activities over recent months, and are frustrated over feeling caught in the middle in the United States’ conflict with Iran. At the same time, they worry about a return to the 2015 nuclear deal, observing that the deal is not sufficient enough to stop Iran from actually developing nuclear weapons.
However, despite their own concerns over the nuclear deal, most Gulf Arab allies admit that a flawed deal is better than no deal as a deal at least puts some guardrails on Iran’s nuclear activities. With little enthusiasm coming from its Gulf Arab allies – who are trying to chart their own diplomatic courses with Iran to deescalate tensions that have plagued the region for nearly 50 years – the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna will likely remain at an impasse.