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Parties to ‘Constructive’ Vienna Nuclear Talks Prepare for Next Meeting
Representatives of the European Union, Iran and world powers attend talks on reviving the nuclear agreement at the Grand Hotel in Vienna, Austria on April 6, 2021. (EU Delegation in Vienna / Handout / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Parties to ‘Constructive’ Vienna Nuclear Talks Prepare for Next Meeting

First round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers sparks hope ahead of Friday sit down

Iran and the world powers will continue their deliberations Friday in Vienna, as the parties to the largely abandoned 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) look to finally reach an agreement regarding sanctions relief and Iranian compliance with uranium enrichment restrictions.

After former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions, Tehran gradually began breaching the pact’s restrictions on its nuclear program.  

On the campaign trail and in the months since taking office, President Joe Biden and his team have signaled their willingness to alleviate the sanctions reimposed by the previous administration, but have also promised to reopen the JCPOA to include other aspects of Iran’s foreign policy.

Each side has demanded the other be the first to return to compliance with the JCPOA.

While Iran has refused to conduct face-to-face negotiations with the United States, the White House’s special representative for Iran, Robert Malley, is also present in the Austrian capital, with European intermediaries shuttling between the two camps.

Both sides tempered expectations in the days leading up to this week’s Vienna summit, but after representatives from Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia met separately with their Iranian and American counterparts on Tuesday all sides expressed guarded optimism, labeling the talks “constructive.”

On Wednesday, diplomats and expert-level groups sat down to try and agree on what sanctions could be lifted by Washington, and what breaches of the 2015 deal by Iran could be rolled back in return.

“A new chapter has just been opened,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told his cabinet on Wednesday. “If [the US] shows it is honest and sincere … I think we’ll be able to negotiate in a short time.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price noted Tuesday’s indirect discussions were a “welcome … constructive … potentially useful step.”

Friday is expected to separately seat US and Iranian diplomats for further mediated negotiations.

Mark Hibbs, a Germany-based senior fellow in The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nuclear Policy Program, advises caution when projecting about possible achievements.

“[We’re] not in the room. Most people talking about this are speculating based on … a polarized conversation,” Hibbs told The Media Line.

He explained that the best-case scenario “is that there will be an agreement on a definition of what mutual baseline compliance with the JCPOA is [and] that the best way to get there is by stepwise actions taken by both sides.”

As for the likeliest outcome of the Vienna round of meetings, Hibbs believes it “will probably be less” than that.

“Perhaps an agreement on the process and mechanics for reaching and implementing an agreement, with a timetable and a schedule. If the US and Iran instead try to negotiate a complete package deal like they did in 2015, both sides will be under more time pressure because in the interim they won’t have anything to show in the way of near-term progress,” he said.

Yet not everyone is pleased with the apparent success of the summit’s first few days.

On Wednesday evening, during the opening ceremony of Israel’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu used the occasion to convey his message to world powers negotiating with the Islamic Republic.

“The nuclear deal with Iran, which enabled it to advance toward developing an atomic arsenal, is back on the table,” Netanyahu warned.

The prime minister vowed that Israel, established in the wake of the attempted extermination of European Jewry by Nazi Germany, would not allow its existence to be threatened by similar contemporary threats.

“Even to our best friends I say: An agreement with Iran … will not bind us one bit,” Netanyahu said in a thinly veiled threat to Washington and the rest of the world.

“The Iranians have been playing the game very shrewdly,” Ephraim Esculai, a 40-year veteran of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission who also worked at the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, told The Media Line. “They’ve put themselves in a win-win situation.”

“The steps they’ve taken over the past months, while reversible, now enable them to more quickly break toward a nuclear weapon. And if by some chance these talks succeed and they secure sanctions relief, that’s obviously a win as well,” Esculai, now a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said.

“The US, on the other hand, is in a much more complex position. President Biden wants to make progress, but doesn’t want to appear as someone who totally backed down from firm statements he made only weeks ago,” he added.

The 2015 agreement de-escalated the Iran nuclear crisis for the near term, so it is in Biden’s interest to try to restore it and then use it as a baseline for follow-on diplomacy

Hibbs notes that a “framework understanding” will need to be reached about “how to go beyond compliance with what is in the 2015 deal to address issues that have been raised by the US and the Europeans.”

Among the items Washington hopes to resolve are Tehran’s quickly expanding missile program and its aggressive activities in Middle Eastern proxy nations both near and far.

“The 2015 agreement de-escalated the Iran nuclear crisis for the near term, so it is in Biden’s interest to try to restore it and then use it as a baseline for follow-on diplomacy,” Hibbs says.

Many of the specific nuclear restrictions on Iran in the JCPOA will soon begin to expire, Hibbs points out, “ and to get a longer commitment from Iran the US should use the leverage it has. Iran knows that the JCPOA would come under renewed pressure including in the US should Biden lift all sanctions in exchange for a few more years of nuclear restraint.”

“That would also not be an outcome that US allies and states in Iran’s region would want to see happen,” he adds. “So, Biden is not alone in raising issues that go beyond 2015.”

 

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