By Samuel M. Hickey
Following a five-month hiatus from nuclear talks, there has been little diplomatic progress between Iran and the members of the P4+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom) since the return to Vienna on Nov. 29. The common criticism is that the new Raisi administration pocketed any compromise solutions put on the table during the first six rounds of talks, and is pursuing a maximalist approach, such as removing all sanctions imposed since the United States withdrew from the deal in May 2018.
However, full restoration of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) remains the best option to avoid a nuclear crisis. Averting a crisis with Iran will give intensifying regional diplomatic efforts — such as those between Tehran, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi — a chance to succeed. For Iran, full restoration of the JCPOA is the least costly option to provide its citizens immediate sanctions relief and an opportunity to reduce tensions with its neighbors. For both sides, reviving the deal is the best option to avoid an escalation that could spiral out of control.
Status of talks in Vienna
Since talks have recommenced, Iran has introduced two documents containing its proposals related to “the lifting of sanctions” and “Iran’s nuclear actions.” However, European delegates have cast these proposals as incompatible with the JCPOA. This initial negotiating position for Iran was predictable, but the lack of progress toward issues of substance is inauspicious.
Efforts to pin the blame for the lack of progress are already underway. For instance, Germany’s foreign ministry spokesperson noted on Dec. 3 that, “We reviewed the proposals … carefully and thoroughly and concluded that Iran violated almost all compromises found previously in months of hard negotiations.” Similarly, the French foreign ministry argued, “the proposals presented by Iran last week do not constitute a reasonable basis compatible with the goal of a swift conclusion in the interests of all.” An Iranian spokesperson responded, “Now, it is crystal clear that the U.S. reluctance to fully drop the sanctions is the main challenge for the progress of negotiations.”
Positive regional developments
As the United States has made clear its plans to reduce its protective military services to the Middle East — although not its diplomatic presence — the region has sought to find the means to coexist rather than devolving into chaotic military confrontation.
For the last decade, the Middle East has faced an array of overlapping groupings: from the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum of Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Cyprus, Greece and Italy — which Cairo led to isolate Ankara; to the political and economic embargo imposed on Qatar by the Arab quartet of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt; to the regional split and proxy involvement in the Libyan and Syrian civil wars. Now, there is reconciliation on many fronts. For instance, Cairo and Ankara are attempting to “repair and eventually normalize strained ties,” the intra-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plus Egypt dispute has “turned a corner,” and most importantly, Riyadh and Tehran have engaged in multiple rounds of talks.
These talks to reduce tensions mark a positive evolution from Trump-era efforts to expand NATO’s security assurances to the Middle East and, separately, to create a Middle East Security Alliance with the GCC plus Jordan and Egypt in order to isolate Iran. While Iran is a part of these talks and clearly has much to gain from stability in the region and the creation of crisis defusing mechanisms, the Biden administration has also welcomed and expressed support for these talks. Failure to revive the JCPOA might toss these diplomatic initiatives into disarray.
Hard-ball diplomacy has kept the door open a bit longer
Once again, threats of calling an emergency meeting at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors have compelled Iran to reach an agreement with the agency’s nuclear inspectors. The IAEA and Iran have reached an agreement to re-install cameras at Iran’s Karaj centrifuge component manufacturing workshop before the end of the year. These cameras were sabotaged in June 2021 — likely by an Israeli drone attack — and Iran delayed IAEA inspector access to the site over claims that the attack was not condemned.
All of the parties remember the experience of 2006 when Iran broke open internationally monitored seals on the Natanz enrichment facility, which rallied the international community against it. An emergency meeting was called at the IAEA’s board, which eventually led to the imposition of the first round of UN Security Council sanctions. Unlike the Trump administration’s unilateral sanctions campaign, multilateral sanctions have a proven track record of coercing decision-makers, so Iran has been wary of isolating itself.
However, unlike 2006, the United States does not have Russia and China on its side. Russia, China and Iran have been meeting trilaterally all week in Vienna and Iran has been careful not to overstep Russian and Chinese redlines. Moscow and Beijing don’t want Iran to develop nuclear weapons, but also see the ongoing crisis as a way of reinforcing Iranian dependence on them and dividing the West. As further evidence, in the most recent UN Security Council report on Iran’s compliance with Res. 2231 — particularly the parts discussing Iran’s ballistic missile violations — Russia has backed Iran all the way. Without the backing of the major powers, hard-ball diplomacy will only go so far. Both sides need to show some compromise.