A High-Stakes Game in Vienna, as U.S. and Iran Attempt to Restart Nuclear Talk

iran nuclear talks
(Graphic Credit: Hamodia/Iranian Revolutionary Guard/Sepahnews via AP)

Iran and the United States have begun indirect talks in Vienna as they and a team of intermediaries attempt to chart a path each hope will lead back to mutual recommitment to the 2015 nuclear agreement.

Tucked away in the conference rooms of a five-star hotel in Vienna, the group’s gathering has much of the panache of international diplomacy, with the idiosyncrasies of participants wearing face masks in deference to the COVID pandemic.

Stakes are high on all sides. Iran has been in increasingly dire straits since a combination of harsh U.S. sanctions and the novel coronavirus took a severe toll on its economy. Sanctions have also significantly set back business ties that many European firms forged after the initial nuclear deal delivered a petroleum coated windfall. For Iran’s regional enemies, chiefly Israel and Saudi Arabia, the results of the talks will determine to what extent the job of containing Tehran’s ambitions will be left to them.

At the middle of the fulcrum is the United States, whose interests in Iran containment are a subject of fierce national political debate.

Against this swirling background, rests the question of how and if Iran’s atomic expansionist ambitions will be addressed.

The U.S.-Iran Tale

Before assuming office, President Joseph Biden was clear in his desire to return to the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Arguably, the key foreign policy achievement of his former superior, then-President Barack Obama, the agreement was the culmination of over a decade of diplomatic pressure to curb Iran’s ambitions for a nuclear weapon. Yet, even as it was inked, the agreement was highly controversial, opposed by Israel and the Gulf States as well as by nearly all Congressional Republicans and many powerful Democrats, including current Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer. Opponents argued that the terms offered Iran the sanction relief it desperately needed, in exchange for terms that made it too easy for the Islamic Republic to proceed with its nuclear program both above and below board.

iran nuclear talks
Representatives of the European Union (L) and Iran (R) attend the Iran nuclear talks at the Grand Hotel in Vienna earlier this month. (EU Delegation in Vienna via Getty Images)

After entering office with deep skepticism about the deal, in 2018, President Donald Trump took the United States out of the JCPOA. What followed was a campaign of “maximum pressure,” mostly in the form of sanctions, which have inflicted tremendous damage on Iran’s economy — highly dependent on oil exports. The U.S. also backed a series of intelligence missions and assassinations intended to set back Iran’s nuclear development and attempts at international expansion. The strategy was based on a premise that Iran was never sincerely committed to abandoning its nuclear program, much less its vision for Shiite dominance in the region, and that the only effective response was to hamstring its government.

Iran’s responses to U.S. pressure were mild, as many speculated that its leaders were eagerly awaiting the results of the 2020 elections, hoping to strike a new deal with a successor who took a positive view of the JCPOA. At the same time, though still bound to the deal with other signatories (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and Germany), Iran took constant steps toward openly defying its commitments.

Now the stage is set for another chapter in the U.S.-Iran saga. Both parties want a return to the deal. Iran desperately needs access to global markets and is facing increasing domestic unrest amid high unemployment. The Biden administration is eager to return, both as a means of salvaging what they believe is a worthy deterrence strategy and to allow the foreign policy team to focus on China, which it views as the nation’s primary security threat. It seems well equipped to do so as the State Department is now led by a team that, during the Obama administration, were all intimately involved in creating the JCPOA.

Yet, even with this mutual goal, the path back does not seem smooth, and concerns are no more muted than they were six years ago.

Playing Nuclear Telephone in Vienna

The very setup of the ongoing talks in Vienna symbolizes the gap Iran and the U.S. must close in order to return to the agreement. The intention of the present meetings is to set out a list of issues on each side that would need to be resolved for both sides to recommit to the JCPOA. Yet, Iran categorically refused to meet directly with American negotiators, insisting on speaking only with operatives from the remaining signatory nations.

America consented to the arrangement under which European and Chinese representatives are meeting with Iranian diplomats in the Grand Hotel Wein, with messages being relayed back and forth with the U.S. team headquartered in another hotel nearby.

James Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation, said it was a “bad idea” for the U.S. to consent to the arrangement in the first place.

“It has the U.S. looking in from the outside symbolically, and in many aspects the policy that comes out of it will follow that as well,” he told Hamodia. “Iran agreed to this structure because they know probably the Europeans, and definitely Russia and China, will support their positions. Iran’s on a knife’s edge economically and realizes that it needs a deal much more than Washington does. For that reason, they prefer multilateral talks that allow them to dictate the agenda.”

The day talks opened, a State Department spokesman described the exchanges as “businesslike” and “constructive,” but acknowledged that “there still are question marks about whether Iran has the willingness to do what it will take to take the pragmatic approach that the United States has taken to come back into compliance with its obligations under the deal.”

Throwing additional cold water on the talks was a sabotage attack (presumably carried out by Israel) on Iran’s major nuclear enrichment center at Natanz.

The U.S. had little to say about the attack, besides to deny involvement, but Iran pushed back by announcing that it would raise its enrichment levels from 20% to 60%. Such a level is still short of the 90% required to produce weapons-grade uranium (which Iran denies seeking), but further yet away from the 3.76% allowed by the JCPOA.

Talks in Vienna resumed last Wednesday, after a break of a few days, but Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei voiced a pessimistic note.

“The offers they provide are usually arrogant and humiliating [and] are not worth looking at,” he said.

What the administration’s diplomats seek with the present round of talks is to develop a set of incremental steps that could lead both nations progressively closer to their mutual obligations as per the JCPOA.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s additional comments that “talks shouldn’t become talks of attrition,” and that “they shouldn’t be in a way that parties drag on and prolong the talks” followed a theme expressed by Iranian officials and by decisions to increase enrichment, that they favor a quick “all or nothing” approach.

“It’s pressuring Biden and the EU and raising the price of concessions,” Michael Rubin, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert in Middle East Affairs told Hamodia. “Unfortunately, no one calls Iran out and asks why a civilian energy program, which normally operates at around enrichment levels of 5.4%, needs 60% enriched uranium.”

Another wild card in Iran negotiations are presidential elections coming up this June. It is possible that Iranian representatives will be more open to compromise after a new President is elected, but many believe that little will change as decisions about the nuclear program ultimately fall to Ayatollah Khamenei.

No, You Go First

The key sticking point between the U.S. and Iran is the insistence of each that the other should return to their commitments under the JCPOA first and that only then will the other follow suit.

In a recent press conference, the State Department’s lead spokesman Ned Price reinforced the administration’s position.

iran nuclear talks
State Department spokesman Ned Price (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, Pool)

“I think what we can essentially rule out are the maximalist demands that the United States do everything first and only in turn would Iran then act; I don’t think anyone is under the impression that that would be a viable proposal,” he said.

However, knowing the Biden administration’s enthusiasm to return to the deal, and Iran’s proven ability to drive hard bargains, skeptics fear that U.S. diplomats will seek ways to walk back the administration’s stated approach.

“Initially, I think they will hold the line, but as time goes on, they will be under pressure to find ways around that,” said Mr. Phillips. “One thing that might hold them back though is Congress, which will be an increasing factor. The Iran nuclear deal was criticized by many Democrats in addition to all Republicans, and if Biden tries to slide an even worse deal by, he will be called on it.”

Much of the debate likely going on in Vienna is over which U.S. sanctions are directly tied to Iran’s nuclear activity.

In a State Department briefing as talks got underway, a spokesman reiterated the administration’s position that they are prepared to lift restrictions it sees as “inconsistent with the JCPOA and inconsistent with the benefits that Iran expects from the JCPOA,” but that “under the deal, the U.S. retains the right to impose sanctions for non-nuclear reasons, whether it’s terrorism or human rights violations or interference with our elections, et cetera.”

But Iran insists that all sanctions must be lifted unilaterally.

The multi-layered nature of sanctions makes a rollback additionally complicated, as some Democrats that support a return to the JCPOA would balk at removing measures initiated in response to terrorist activities, election interference, or other nefarious Iranian activities. Most likely by design, the Trump administration interwove many nuclear and non-nuclear sanctions in a way that makes cleanly unraveling them difficult, creating a major impediment to returning to the deal.

Critics of the administration’s approach fear that divvying up the hundreds of sanctions might turn into a quiet way for the President’s team to walk back the red lines initially drawn.

“There is already a wide discrepancy between the commitments Biden aides made in private conversations with critics and congressmen and what they then did with regard to Iran,” said Mr. Rubin. “The Biden team also appears prepared to redefine certain sanctions to lift them by shifting their categorization to ‘nuclear sanctions,’ even if they were imposed due to terrorism and human rights.”

Mr. Rubin, who was in Baghdad at the time of his comments to Hamodia, said that in Iraq “there is open acknowledgment of U.S. pressure to release some of the Iranian money frozen here.”

Dueling Pressure Campaigns

On the campaign trail, President Biden and his team spoke often of their goal to predicate return to the JCPOA on plans to “lengthen and strengthen” the deal.

Yet, in more recent statements, the administration seems to be content with a return to the agreement as it was in 2015, leaving other goals for some later date.

“We do believe that once we’re back in the JCPOA, we should talk to Iran about strengthening the deal, lengthening the deal, and talking about other issues of concern to all Americans,” said a State Department spokesman at a press conference on the meetings in Vienna.

iran nuclear talks
Centrifuge machines line the hall damaged on April 11, at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility. Iran named a suspect Saturday in the attack on its Natanz nuclear facility that damaged centrifuges there as Reza Karimi, and said he had fled the country “hours before” the sabotage happened. (IRIB via AP)

A key criticism of the original JCPOA is that it only sought to curb Iran’s nuclear activities but did nothing to address its ballistic missile program, sponsorship of terrorist groups, or its international meddling. From the time President Biden began his presidential campaign, his team acknowledged that these matters should be addressed, but said that they intended to leave them for a subsequent agreement.

Robert Malley, the U.S.’s Iran envoy, who served as chief negotiator during nuclear talks in 2015, laid out his team’s plan to address these concerns in an interview with NPR.

“What we would pursue is, first of all, a longer agreement. Even though this one lasts quite some time and some of its provisions last forever, of course it would be better, as in any arms control agreement, to see whether we could get a follow-on deal that extends the timelines,” he said. “We have concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile program. We have concerns about their activities in the region. We want to talk about all that. But we’re much better off talking about all of that if we could at least put the current nuclear issue to the side and not have to worry every day about what the latest Iranian announcement will be.”

Mr. Rubin felt that it was inherently misguided to treat ballistic missiles as separate from the nuclear program itself as they are the most likely vehicles to serve as a delivery system for a warhead.

“By keeping ballistic missiles and terror separate in further negotiations, we are not only setting ourselves up to shower Iran with further billions of dollars, but we are also forgetting that ballistic missiles are part of the nuclear program. After all, the nuclear program has three general components: enrichment, warhead design, and delivery. The JCPOA purported to address the first. The IAEA acknowledges that, at least prior to 2003, Iran worked on the second. And the missiles are the third,” he said.

Yet it is unlikely that Iran will agree to any deal that does not remove the most important sanctions and, as such, many question whether it would be realistic to coax them back to the negotiating table.

“The Biden administration claims that it wants much more than the JCPOA, which it recognizes as flawed, but the problem is that once Iran makes enough concessions to get back into the deal and the U.S. restores sanction relief, Washington will have very little leverage and Iran will play out the clock to get what it wants on the issues left unaddressed,” said Mr. Phillips.

Sticking Points

In addition to a longer and stronger nuclear deal and an agreement on other issues such as sponsorship of terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis, many would like to see a far more thorough inspections regime than the one established by the JCPOA.

In recent years, Iran has severely limited access to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear weapons watchdog. Yet even as the JCPOA was signed, many argued that the setup left Iran too much room for covert development. The extent to which Iran had continued its nuclear program even while the U.S. was still a party to the agreement was revealed in 2018 by a large archive of documents stolen by Israel’s Mossad.

iran nuclear talks
This 2019 photo shows technicians at the Arak heavy water reactor’s secondary circuit, as officials and media visit the site 150 miles southwest of Tehran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

As such, even if President Biden’s team arrives at a deal, some argue that without greatly strengthened oversight, the situation will repeat itself.

“The 2015 JCPOA completely reversed counter-proliferation precedent. At the fall of the Soviet Union, the international community demanded Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan forfeit their weapons. It took 19 years for the IAEA to give South Africa a clean bill of health after the country abandoned its nuclear weapons program, and that was with a fully compliant government. In 2003, Libya physically dismantled its infrastructure.

“There are ways to ensure compliance, but repeatedly deferring to Iranian demands and avoiding inspections anywhere, anytime without any notice is not one of them,” said Mr. Rubin.

Those with more hawkish positions on Iran tend to believe that given the evidence of Iran’s lack of compliance to the JCPOA, the maximum pressure strategy was the best way to curb its nuclear and expansionist ambitions.

Yet, since the ratcheted-up pressure failed to produce a new nuclear deal, foreign policy voices aligned with the Biden administration look at the approach as a failure leaving a negotiated deal as the only non-military option.

“The last three years, the Trump administration tested the proposition that putting Iran under maximum pressure and telling it either it needs to come back and forget about the existing nuclear deal and agree to more stringent requirements, or else the pressure would continue,” said Mr. Malley. “Well, we’ve seen what happened. Iran expanded its nuclear program, is getting closer to, sort of, troubling levels of enriched uranium, troubling levels of advanced centrifuges, troubling restrictions on the verification and monitoring, the unprecedented verification that the nuclear deal provided. So, no, we’ve seen the result of the maximum pressure campaign. It has failed.”

Given this orientation, critics fear that the U.S. diplomatic team will fail to fully leverage the pressure Iran remains under from the Trump-era sanctions.

“I think it would be a tragedy if Biden squandered the leverage of the Trump sanctions and returning to a bad deal is a worse option than what we have now,” said Mr. Phillips.

“Iran argues that the sanctions didn’t work since it’s only pushed harder on its program, but I think it’s a little premature to judge. The maximum sanctions only started in 2019. If the administration would stop signaling to Iran how eager they are for a deal, and that they are willing to hold out, they could get much more out of them.”