Vienna talks reach key point as U.S., European allies move beyond JCPOA

June 26, 2021 - 21:9

TEHRAN – American and European officials have launched a concerted diplomatic campaign in a bid to extract more concessions from Iran in the nuclear talks while refusing to provide assurances that they will not renege on their promises again as they did in the 2015 deal.

While Iranian and Western as well as Chinese and Russian diplomats prepare to return to the Austrian capital for a potentially decisive round of talks over reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), American and European diplomats have intensified their diplomatic push to coordinate their negotiating position ahead of the seventh round of Vienna talks, which is expected to go ahead on Monday. 

During recent rounds, Iran and the remaining parties to the JCPOA made significant progress, sorting out the measures needed to be taken by Iran and the U.S. to ensure full implementation of the tattered nuclear deal. In addition to the lifting of all Trump-era sanctions, Iran demanded that the U.S. provide assurances that it will not back down on its word again if the deal was to be revived.

The U.S. rejected both demands, putting the onus on Iran to make difficult decisions regarding the resumption of the JCPOA as if it was Iran who reneged on its commitments first. “What they've asked for - in principle, they've said they want all of the sanctions that President Trump's administration reimposed or imposed since 2018 to be lifted. And that's a lot. And we've said we're prepared to remove those that we think we need to remove to be back in compliance with the JCPOA. But we're not going to lift all of the sanctions that the Trump administration imposed,” U.S. envoy to the Vienna talks Rob Malley told NPR. 

Malley appeared to go so far as to threaten to walk out of the Vienna talks if they ceased to make progress. “We wouldn't be going back to Vienna if we thought that it's not possible to reach a deal. I don't think that this window is going to be open forever. At some point, we'll have to conclude that this is not succeeding. But we're not there yet,” he noted. 

In an echo of Malley’s warning, U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken also warned that the U.S. could eventually decide not to rejoin the agreement if negotiations in Vienna continue without progress. 

“There will come a point, yes, where it will be very hard to return back to the standards set by the JCPOA,” the top U.S. diplomat said at a briefing in Paris after meeting with French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian. He also called on Iran to make “difficult” decisions to advance talks that could revive the JCPOA.

Le Drian reiterated the same call. “It’s been six weeks since the negotiations started again. Some progress was achieved, and we will now be entering the most difficult times. It will require some strong and courageous decisions on behalf of the new Iranian authorities, but now is the time,” he said. 

The difficult decision that the U.S. and its European allies want Iran to make is primarily related to the era after reviving the JCPOA, which seems to have fallen short of the West’s expectations. During the past rounds of talks, the U.S. has sought to obtain a commitment from Iran that it will continue discussions with the West even after the resumption of the JCPOA, something that Iran utterly rejected.

Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi has made it crystal clear that he will not concede to the U.S. push to “strengthen and lengthen” the JCPOA. During his first press briefing after securing a landslide win, Raisi said Iran’s missile program and its regional sway are non-negotiable. 

Facing decisive Iranian reluctance, the U.S. and its European allies seem to have resorted to diplomatic bullying ahead of the next round of talks. They threatened Iran with closing the current window of opportunity for talks, believing that Iran will retreat from its firm position due to its alleged need for sanctions relief. 

Pundits close to the U.S. negotiating team are moving from reviving the JCPOA to advocating for a broader deal with Iran that would cover other thorny issues of interest to the U.S. and Europe, namely the Iranian missiles and the country's regional influence. A case in point is Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group, an influential think tank that played a pivotal role in facilitating the talks that led to the signing of the JCPOA in 2015.

Vaez is Crisis Group’s Iran Project Director and senior adviser to the president of the think tank. In the running up to the JCPOA, Vaez established close ties with senior diplomats and nuclear negotiators who hammered out the JCPOA. He could be seen on a number of occasions standing near senior Iranian diplomats and their American counterparts in the JCPOA talks before its signing. 

Vaez has been a fierce advocate of the JCPOA and has been calling on the U.S. to rejoin the deal ever since it was jettisoned by former U.S. President Donald Trump.  With Iran and the West locked in a war of words over the JCPOA ahead of an all-important diplomatic showdown, Vaez seems to be pivoting toward his former boss, Rob Malley. 

Vaez believes that the JCPOA has failed to set a precedent for a “narrow transactional deal” between Iran and the U.S. given the severity of enmity between the two. 

In remarks to the Tehran Times, Vaez also formulated the agenda of a possible follow-on negotiation between Tehran and Washington by positing that Iran should discuss its current concerns in a post-JCPOA negotiation. 

“It's correct to assert that the U.S. under the Biden administration, as well as the three European powers involved in the JCPOA negotiations (the UK, France and Germany, or E3) have all publicly indicated that they want to restore the 2015 nuclear deal as an immediate priority, on the basis of mutual compliance, and then build on the agreement to discuss with Iran issues beyond the nuclear-specific file. What is unclear is why Iran doesn’t see an interest in engaging in such talks,” he told the Tehran Times. He added, “Iran was not satisfied with sanctions relief under the JCPOA when it was fully implemented in 2016. It is now demanding compensation for the effects of maximum pressure, seeks access to the U.S. dollar, and needs guarantees that the US will not renege on the agreement again. These could all be discussed in a follow-on negotiation that Iran needs but rejects. Also, the experience of the past few years has clearly demonstrated that a narrow transactional deal will not survive in the broader context of enmity between Iran and the West. So, refusing to discuss and resolve disagreements is nothing but a refusal to learn from the mistakes of the past while expecting different results.”

But Vaez did not say why Iran should give up on its current concerns while the U.S. still refusing to even provide Iran with the slightest sanctions relief per a deal that was negotiated first by the very same diplomats who are now at the helm in Washington. 

Ironically, Vaez, in effect, is calling for revising a deal that he and his former boss helped negotiate. This makes one wonder if there really exist people on the other side with whom one can make a deal, let alone non-transactional compacts.  

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