By Samuel M. Hickey
As diplomats break in the middle of the eighth round of talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), there remains a clear sense that the pace of diplomacy lags dangerously behind Iran’s advancing nuclear program. A Senior State Department official briefing the press in mid-December said that the delegates have made some progress but “at a pace that will not be sufficient to get to where we need to go before Iran’s nuclear advances render the JCPOA a corpse that cannot be revived.”
Although the United States’ withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018 led to the current impasse, Iran’s nuclear escalations run the risk of smothering the nuclear deal’s last gasps for air. Further, Iran still refuses to meet the U.S. delegation face-to-face. To accelerate the diplomatic timeline, the parties need to streamline communication between the United States and Iran. On December 28, senior European officials acknowledged that all sides “have weeks, not months, to conclude a deal before the JCPOA’s core non-proliferation benefits are lost.” It is time for the delegations of the United States and Iran to finally get in the same room and hammer out the details of the text. So far, Iran has resisted such a format.
In Vienna, the parties to the JCPOA are relying on a complex negotiation process whereby the Deputy Secretary-General of the European Union, Enrique Mora, runs proposals back and forth between the U.S. and Iranian delegations stationed at different hotels eight blocks away. The parties are finally working off of a common text and have determined a clear set of questions that need to be resolved, which is indeed progress from Iran’s initial negotiating position, but now, the parties must turn to the more difficult issues of substance and sequence to get over the finish line.
On December 23, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein called for direct talks between the United States and Iran in a joint press conference with Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, in Tehran. The surprising appeal comes as Baghdad is also facilitating face-to-face talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Foreign Minister Amirabdollahian used the same press conference to note that Iran would attend the next round of talks that Iraq is holding. Further, former Iranian diplomat and nuclear negotiator Dr. Seyed Hossein Mousavian has recently argued in Iranian media that direct talks with the United States would be more effective for Iran. Dr. Mousavian argues that not only will direct talks lead to fewer misunderstandings, but that the United States will not make compromises via intermediaries. Direct talks may also quicken the pace of talks.
Time to Publicize Some Routine Sanctions Maintenance
On June 10, 2021, the Biden administration lifted sanctions on three former Iranian officials and two energy companies in what State Department spokesman Ned Price claimed had “absolutely no connection” to ongoing negotiations on the nuclear agreement. It was true that the officials no longer worked for the designated companies and the announcement could legitimately be chalked up to bureaucratic routine maintenance, but the move contributed to a more conducive atmosphere for compromise two days before the sixth round of talks was to get underway. By the end of the sixth round, the text that was developed left bracketed the key issues in need of compromise and the Iranian delegation said that only “Some minute technical, political, legal and practical issues remain.”
While the Iranians did not return to Vienna after the sixth round of talks to allow for the transition of presidential power in Iran, there was a sense of optimism throughout that week. “No task was impossible for negotiators” and there’s no impasse, said Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry. Iran’s diplomatic team has since changed with the new hardline administration, so the challenges to finding a compromise are now greater. A show of good faith by lifting irrelevant sanctions on Iranian civilians might break the diplomatic congestion.
As Iran is under pressure from close partners and advisors to consider dropping its refusal to meet with the U.S. delegation face-to-face, the United States can help its own cause and ensure some domestic political cover. Publicizing routine sanctions maintenance that delists some innocent Iranians held hostage by a vast and entangled web of designations might provide the political cover for Iran to drop this diplomatic restriction while giving the Biden administration cover at home. A small gesture may provide a key to unlock the door to progress.