Insecurity shadow over Vienna talks: Place of Iran talks changed amid protests fears

November 23, 2021 - 21:22

TEHRAN – Angry protests in Austria over the re-imposition of new restrictions due to a rising wave of new COVID-19 infections have cast doubt on the European country’s ability to play host for the next rounds of Iran talks.

An unexpected surge in Covid-19 infections in Europe has sparked angry protests in a handful of European cities, with the angst descending into violent clashes with police in a number of nations. The surge sent several senior European officials, including the prime ministers of France and Belgium, into quarantine.

A Belgium government statement said the country’s Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo, and four of his ministers went into quarantine on Monday after French Prime Minister Jean Castex tested positive for Covid-19. The announcement came after the Belgian officials attended a meeting with Castex and other French officials.

The increase in the Coronavirus infections forced Austria to impose a full nationwide coronavirus lockdown on Monday - the first EU country to reinstitute the drastic measure amid fears of a deadly fourth wave.

In addition, the Austrian government announced a vaccine mandate under which all Austrians over the age of 18 will have to be vaccinated against Covid-19, by law.

The measures sparked massive protests across the country, resulting in about 50,000 people coming out to protest against the country's 4th coronavirus lockdown and the vaccine mandate. Some 40,000 demonstrators gathered for a rally, organized by the far-right Freedom Party, in the capital city of Vienna alone, according to CBS NEWS.

The protests erupted at a time when Vienna is bracing for an all-important round of international talks between Iran and major world powers later this month. 

The much-awaited talks, scheduled to be held on November 29, will center around discussing ways to lift U.S. sanctions on Iran. The last round of talks was concluded on June 20 and it was held at Vienna’s five-star luxury Grand Hotel. Ever since the talks have been put on hold due to the transition of power in the wake of Iran’s June presidential election which resulted in the victory of Ayatollah Seyed Ebrahim Raisi. 

Over the past five months, there have been mounting pressure from the West on Iran to return to Vienna. After completing the transition process, Iran finally announced November 29 as the date for resuming the Vienna talks.

But as Iran and the P4+1 group of countries - Russia, China, France, and the UK plus Germany – prepare for a consequential round of talks, there are growing signs that Vienna may not be the perfect venue. 

The first sign is the change of the hotel that will host the talks. All the past six rounds were held at the Grand Hotel. But the next round would be held at Palais Coburg, a five-star luxury hotel in central Vienna that played host to the 2015 nuclear negotiations leading up to the landmark nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). 

Stephanie Liechtenstein, a Vienna-based journalist covering foreign policy, confirmed on Twitter the movement of talks. “SCOOP: I understand Iran nuclear talks will be moved (back) to Palais Coburg. Just went to check for myself. Media tent is already being set up,” she said on Tuesday.

The eruption of protests in Vienna has cast doubt on the Austrian government’s ability to safely host the Iran talks, with some diplomatic circles even considering moving the talks from Austria to another country.

The decision to change the place of talks in Vienna was made due to concerns that the Coronavirus-related protests would disrupt or at least impinge on the talks, according to these circles. 

There have been initial thoughts on where to move the place of talks, but no decision made yet. The continuation of protests, particularly if they descend into violent clashes, will probably turn the thoughts into serious plans. 

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