THE GRAND HOTEL on Vienna’s Ringstrasse, the city’s elegant main boulevard, is a great place for nuclear diplomacy. It’s not just the opulent surroundings or the unlimited coffee. The hotel was also the seat of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world’s nuclear watchdog, for 22 years until 1979. But the diplomats who have gathered there for six rounds of talks since April, most recently on June 20, have so far had little luck. And time can be short.
America and Iran are discussing – indirectly through the UK, China, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union – the revival of the multinational nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was signed in 2015 and abandoned three years later by President Donald Trump. In response to US sanctions, Iran has violated the terms of the agreement by testing advanced centrifuges and enriched uranium, among other prohibited steps. The IAEA estimated in May that Iran had produced over 3,000 kg of uranium with a purity of up to 5% (see graph), enough for several bombs if further enriched. Over 70kg is now also fortified to over 20%, which is most of the way to gun quality.
Last year, America under President Joe Biden and Iran each said they were ready to return to the terms of the original deal if the other did too. “We think that almost all of the agreement documents are ready,” said the Iranian deputy foreign minister after the last round. There is “a new level of optimism,” they raved EU‘s envoy to the U.N. on June 30th. Russia’s Foreign Ministry expects an agreement by July 14th JCPOAsixth anniversary. However, restoring the original conditions is not as easy as it sounds, since circumstances have changed so much in six years.
It doesn’t help that Iran is in the middle of a political transition. Ebrahim Raisi, a nationalist hardliner, is slated to replace the pragmatist Hassan Rouhani as Iranian president on August 3. Raisi and his allies are more hostile to America and the West than the current administration. That doesn’t mean an agreement is impossible – after all, it was another hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who started the talks that eventually led to the JCPOA. But the choice of Mr Raisi complicates things.
Mr Rouhani’s government has “very little incentive” to devote its last month in office to hectic diplomacy, says Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi of the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank. A political reward would be a long way off, because the next elections – for the Iranian parliament – are not due for another three years. There is also no guarantee that the new government will fully implement an agreement it has adopted, says Ms. Tabrizi.
Iran’s domestic policy is not the only hurdle on the way to an agreement. “We still have serious differences that have not been bridged,” a senior American official warned reporters anonymously last month. âWhether it’s the nuclear steps Iran needs to take to regain compliance, the easing of sanctions, the Iranian government US will offer, or the sequence of steps that both sides would take. “
Both sides now accept that they could get back to the deal in a series of simultaneous steps instead of waiting for the other to do everything first. But Iran has said it wants America to lift all sanctions imposed by Mr Trump. America replies that it will only pick up those who fall under it JCPOA. In March, the Biden government imposed new sanctions on two members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. These types of sanctions, which are “economically insignificant but politically highly sensitive,” are the greatest challenges, says Henry Rome of the Eurasia Group, a consultancy. This includes America’s labeling of the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group and sanctions against Raisi himself.
On June 30th, Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iranian ambassador to the U.N., said the country wanted “assurances that … the US won’t get out of that again JCPOA“. American officials say it is impossible to give such assurance, not least because of the JCPOA could not be converted into a binding treaty without the support of two-thirds of the Senate. The Republicans, who make up half of the assembly, are bitterly opposed to the deal. In any case, Mr. Trump has also shown that a president can refrain from long-term contracts.
Western countries have their own complaints. They argue that while Iran has portrayed its violations of the agreement as salutary and reversible, it has also gained valuable insights through, among other things, operating advanced centrifuges and making uranium metal (the solid form used in reactors or bombs as opposed to the gaseous compound used during enrichment). The JCPOA should postpone such activities until later, thereby slowing down Iran’s nuclear progress. America now wants Iran to agree to follow-up talks that not only expand the terms of the agreement but also cover issues such as Iran’s ballistic missiles and support for militant groups in the region. Mr. Raisi says these things are “non-negotiable”.
The impasse is particularly dangerous because Iran is determined to increase its influence not only by steadily expanding its nuclear activities and thereby reducing the time it takes to build a bomb, but also by threatening to make its program less transparent. In February, Iran rejected several of the JCPOAhowever, the strict inspection regulations, such as the installation of cameras at nuclear sites, immediately agreed on a “temporary technical understanding” with the IAEA to get some access.
These bridging measures were extended twice, but expired on June 24, days after the end of the last talks in Vienna. The Iranian government has yet to decide whether to extend it – and hints that it could erase the data on cameras. The intent may be to make America sweat, but it certainly undermines confidence. On July 1, Reuters news agency reported that Iran had the IAEAs Access to Natanz, its main fortification facility, following alleged Israeli sabotage in April.
With all the positive talk from Vienna, there is also fear of how high the stakes will be. Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s envoy, says renewal of IranIAEA Understanding would “avoid uncertainties that can have unjustified long-term negative effects”. Mark Fitzpatrick, a retired American diplomat, is blunt: “Iran is playing with fire.” â
This article appeared in the print edition in the Middle East & Africa under the heading “Enriching talks”