The odds that Iran and the West are on the cusp of a breakthrough in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme increased this week after a change in tone by senior Iranian officials led by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei, the ultimate decision-maker on issues of national security, appeared to give his support for the negotiations to continue despite differences between Tehran and the Western powers.
In a televised speech on Sunday, Khamenei declared that “negotiations with the enemy at a certain juncture do not necessarily mean surrendering.”
In a sign that he may be ready to make concessions in order to help the negotiations to succeed, he talked about “heroic flexibility” in the negotiations.
Khamenei’s message appears to be directed at the Iranian public and at the countries negotiating with Tehran.
Conservatives in Iran, whether in government, parliament, or the Revolutionary Guards, have concerns about signing a new nuclear agreement with the West and reducing the country’s nuclear activities.
They fear a scenario under which a new US administration could withdraw from the deal as former US president Donald Trump did in 2018.
Conservative advisers close to Khamenei have warned of the risk of signing a new deal without robust guarantees that the signatories will not unilaterally withdraw from it.
Hardliners in Iran and the country’s conservative press have been hostile to the negotiations as a result. Khamenei’s public intervention and his talk of “heroic flexibility” appear to be a way of reassuring sceptics in Iran.
Khamenei’s remarks can only be encouraging for the West, where many have been worried that the negotiations, stalled in the final months of the government of former president Hassan Rouhani in Iran, were facing deadlock.
They feared that with a new hardline President Ebrahim Raisi, Iran would try to play for time and not be serious about reaching a new nuclear deal, especially if the West imposed additional conditions.
But Khamenei’s statement has given the green light to go ahead to reach a deal.
Iran wants a comprehensive deal with the world powers that removes the sanctions on the country, including on oil exports, and it will not settle for an interim agreement, its Foreign Ministry said on Monday.
“Iran is seeking a sustainable and reliable deal, and any agreement that does not meet these requirements will not be on the agenda,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh.
“The US return to the nuclear deal should come with necessary assurances and verifications, and a chain of sanctions must be lifted. This can’t happen through an interim deal.”
Iran’s demand for guarantees that a future US administration will not walk away from the deal again and reimpose sanctions is a difficult and complex request.
Neither the Western countries nor the US Biden administration can give Tehran legal guarantees that a future US administration will not withdraw from the deal.
A Western diplomat close to the negotiations told Al-Ahram Weekly that the alternative might be to give Iran guarantees that the nuclear deal would remain viable if Tehran continues to implement it.
One key area where there is space for progress is in an enhanced inspections regime of Iranian nuclear sites, where Iran might give ground.
Another area of potential compromise is sanctions relief. While Iranian officials formerly demanded the removal of all the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on Iran, they now seem to be focusing on the “illegal sanctions” that violate the original deal and not other sanctions related to Iran’s missile programme or regional activities.
But Western diplomats believe that when confidence is restored, the sanctions on Iranian oil, figures in the Revolutionary Guards and the nuclear programme will also be removed.
In a sign that the negotiations may have entered an advanced stage, the Iranian president has not talked about them for a while, usually an indication that he wants to give space to the negotiators in Vienna.
Earlier this week, the Iranian Foreign Ministry said that Tehran had not proposed anything beyond the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement in Vienna and that it would not agree on anything other than all four subjects in the negotiations, namely the removal of sanctions, verification, assurances and nuclear issues.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said reaching a satisfactory agreement was possible if the Western side possessed goodwill.
Following the meeting of the Joint Commission and the P4+1 countries (Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) signatory to the 2015 deal, the sides agreed to facilitate work on a draft treaty and complete it by early in February 2022.
There is cautious optimism in various capitals. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said the Vienna negotiations were speeding up and the chances for reaching a solution had increased.
“The Vienna talks have speeded up. We believe that the chances to solve [problems] within the framework that had been developed during the previous rounds, including six rounds held until June 20, have increased. This is a positive thing. All parties are demonstrating readiness to solve the remaining problems,” he said.
Ryabkov also mentioned that “various schemes are possible” for reaching the ultimate goal, the restoration of the Iranian nuclear deal in its original form.
“A step-by-step approach based on reciprocity [is likely] to achieve the main goal,” he said.
“I would like to emphasise that possible intermediate steps are not going to replace, substitute, for the basic agreement, which needs to be fully restored. The Russian side proceeds from this, while providing political and diplomatic assistance to… the Iranians, Americans and Europeans,” Ryabkov stated.
He said he saw no need to set deadlines for reaching a final decision on the deal.
French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Friday that progress had been made regarding the nuclear negotiations in Vienna, although time was running out.
“I remain convinced we can reach a deal. But time is running out,” Le Drian told the French BFM TV and RMC Radio.
US State Department Spokesman Ned Price also noted that the nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna had shown modest progress and that Washington hoped to build on the progress that has been made.
South Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Jong-Kun visited Vienna last week to discuss $7 billion in Iranian assets that have been frozen in the country with Iranian officials. These cannot be released without US approval.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.