Iran s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, right, welcomes the IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi for their meeting in Tehran (photos: AFP)
The European Union coordinator of negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Enrique Mora, visited Tehran this week with proposals to break the deadlock. Talks had stalled in mid-March after high hopes that a draft agreement would be signed.
The deal, made in 2015 between Iran and world powers, was to stop Iran developing its nuclear capabilities in return for easing Western and international sanctions on Tehran. In 2018, US president Donald Trump withdrew from the deal and imposed even more sanctions. Last year the Biden administration started negotiations to rejoin the deal now that Iran had already stepped up its uranium enrichment, coming closer to weapons-grade stock.
EU signatories to JCPOA – the UK, France and Germany – are the main negotiators with Iran in Vienna as there have been no direct talks between the Iranian and American delegations. The remaining parties – Russia and China – are expected to help, but they are generally considered supporters of Iran.
The eighth round of the Vienna talks was set be the last and some sources have mentioned a 27-page draft document covering all outstanding issues. But Russia demanded a waiver against any provisions that might curtail its relations with Iran under JCPOA. Though the Russian demand was later loosened, the Iranians raised an issue the Americans say was not part of the negotiations. Tehran insists that Washington should lift the terror designations on Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC). The paramilitary organisation is a powerful arm of the ruling regime with vast business interests, and is the main force behind Iran’s proxy groups in neighbouring countries from Iraq and Lebanon to Yemen.
Even though the White House is keen on reviving the Iran deal, it finds the issue of the IRGC a thorny one. The Israelis and US allies in the Gulf are more than concerned. The Congress last week passed a non-binding measure stating that any nuclear agreement with Tehran should also address Iran’s support for terrorism in the region, and that the US should not lift sanctions on the IRGC. Despite the fact that President Biden does not need Congress approval to sign a return to the JCPOA, the bipartisan measure endorsed by a super-majority of senators is a signal to the White House for the upcoming mid-term elections. The ruling Democratic Party could lose any majority in Congress, both in the House and Senate.
That is why State Department Spokesman Ned Price said last week that the US is preparing equally for both a scenario where there is a mutual return to compliance with Iran on a nuclear deal, and one in which there is not an agreement. “Because a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA is very much an uncertain proposition, we are now preparing equally for either scenario,” Price said. The Europeans are now taking the lead in trying to find a compromise, to prevent Vienna talks from faltering.
The war in Ukraine is a new concern pushing the EU to act, but it has also hardened the Iranian position, as Tehran tried to capitalise on the global energy crisis that the war aggravated. “The Iranians became emboldened by the war, the American need for more oil and the European need for more natural gas, as the US and the EU try to scale down their dependence on Russian energy supplies,” a veteran Western diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly. Tehran thinks that the Europeans are between a rock and hard place. But that might be a delusion, as the diplomat notes: “Europe has other options to procure energy, replacing Russian imports. Anyone thinking that Brussels (EU) might pressure the Americans, especially for the sake of Iran’s interests, is probably dreaming.”
In an interview with the Financial Times this week, EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell talked about a “middle way” to end the stalemate. He suggested that “the terror designation on the IRGC could be generally lifted, with specific parts of the organisation still on the list”, as the FT reported. That “specific part” of the Corps is the Al-Quds Brigade. But the problem is that the vast business and financial interests of the IRGC are inseparable from the brigade.
Hardliners in Iran see the situation now, especially with the war in Ukraine, as an opportunity to “demand the maximum”, as some analysts say. An Iranian lawmaker has called on the authorities to tell the people that the Vienna talks to restore the 2015 nuclear deal will yield no results, according to a report on Iran International. Mahmoud Ahmadi-Bighash, who is a member of the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said this week that “there is no news about the revival of JCPOA because it has reached a dead-end. Our differences with the United States and the Europeans are fundamental,” he noted, saying that “the Americans believe that we should give up our principles while we want them to give up their arrogant and bullying behaviour.”
But it is not true that the Vienna talks are dead, even if they have reached an impasse. “The efforts to revive the deal are not dead. These are just more of the same blockages that periodically appear but things continue to move forward, in fits and starts. Qatar’s emir is also visiting Tehran this week on his way to Europe to try to get the nuclear deal moving again. But we’re in a situation now, in light of the economic problems created by the Ukraine war, where the White House has more interest in making this happen sooner than Iran. So Iran will play it tough,” as Oxford University historian and political analyst Andrew Hammond told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Whether the Europeans manage to get Iran back to sign the prepared draft, tweaking the IRGC issue, is still in doubt. Iranians might be bargaining hard, but the harder they go the more likely the whole process to snap.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.