Promising Talks on Iran’s Nuclear Program Resume in Vienna

Ignoring disruptions, cross-town shuttle diplomacy by the EU-led JCPOA Joint Commission is demonstrating good faith on all sides.

Under the chairmanship of the European Union, talks about Iran`s nuclear program began again in Vienna on April 7. These talks focus on the technical details on how to re-implement the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA), within the framework of the JCPOA Joint Commission.

The US-delegation, led by special envoy Rob Malley, is only indirectly involved in the talks. After former President Donald Trump withdrew in May 2018 from the 2015 Vienna agreement, the US has not been a member of the “Joint Commission”. Thus in addition to Iran, the talks primarily include the other five members of the UN Security Council – China, France, Russia, and the UK, plus Germany and the EU, with Enrique Mora chairing the sessions on behalf of EU High Representative Josep Borrell. 

The logistics themselves are complicated with the EU delegates conveying messages between the three locations – the Grand Hotel, the Imperial and the Intercontinental – so that the Iranian and US delegations avoid direct contact. Both Rob Malley and Iranian lead negotiator Abbas Araqchi were involved in the 2015 negotiations in Vienna, while Russia and China sent their lower ranking ambassadors to the talks.

Both sides, the US and Iran, started off with extreme positions:  The US wanted Iran to return to its original commitments, now significantly reduced since Trump’s pulling out of the agreement, before it again would lift any sanctions. Iran, on the other hand, has asked that the US lift all sanction before hand, arguing that it was the US that violated the JCPOA in the first place. Some observers had suggested that the US lift sanctions simultaneously, or step by step, with Iran’s return to its commitments. However, all the delegations soon concluded that a rigid sequencing is not feasible and rejected it.

Working Groups and Changing Goals

During the process of the talks, three working groups were established. One is looking at the sanctions related to the JCPOA; this process has been complicated by the Trump administration, who relabeled them with other concerns like “terrorism” or “human rights,” in an attempt to make it harder for any successor to remove them. Iran also wants the lifting of the sanctions to be subject to verification. 

The second group deals with Iran’s commitments, to make sure that all technical requirements are met. This is also not easy, as Iran has since installed more modern centrifuges than it had in 2015. The third group is to coordinate the results of the other two and identify ways to implement them.

Two weeks into the negotiations, Iran expanded its delegation from the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency to include experts from the Iranian Central Bank and members of the oil ministry, a clear indication of their priorities and a recognition that not all sanctions could be identified and removed at once. Iran wants access to the oil market und to invoice its sales in petrodollars. It also wants participate in the financial funds-transfer mechanism SWIFT.

Another thorny question is which year’s version of the agreement should be used as the reference point for restarting the JCPOA. Iran prefers 2017 before the heavy sanctions of the Trump-administration kicked in. The US will want to restart 2015 because the provisions that limit Iran’s nuclear program, like uranium enrichment or the number of centrifuges, would take longer to expire. On April 27 Iran drafted an agreement as a basis for further negotiations.  

On April 28 and 29, several additional bilateral and trilateral meetings took place, including one between the US and the Russian delegation – a clear sign that the talks were making progress.

A Window of Opportunity in Vienna

There have been several attempts to disrupt the negotiations. The most serious was an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities in Natanz, attributed by most international but also Israeli observers to the Israeli intelligence. Iran held its fire, instead announcing it would enrich uranium to 60 percent, a step closer to the capacity needed for a nuclear weapon. The negotiations continued, as participants recognized that only an agreement – and not military action – could restrict Iran’s nuclear program. In addition, both sides appear to be taking non-public measures in good faith.

The talks in Vienna offer a window of opportunity, similar to the one in 2015 when the JCPOA was first adopted. At that time, both Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and U.S. President Barack Obama understood that after more than a decade of failed attempts, it was a unique moment to come to an agreement.  Weeks passed as negotiations were extended time and again. 

There was a similar situation of urgency this time, as the EU, Rouhani and Biden are all aware. With Iranian elections scheduled for June, Rouhani’s successor might not be as determined.

A failure of the Vienna negotiations would have far reaching consequences. Iran would enhance its nuclear program and come closer to a nuclear weapon. This would be enough for Israel to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. It would also try to involve the US in the conflict, a request that would be hard for Biden to refuse. 

In addition, Iran would most likely increasingly limit the maneuvering room of IAEA-inspectors, and might even force them to leave. It could also threaten to leave the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The IAEA would thus lose any possibility of knowing the status of Iran’s nuclear program. And Saudi Arabia, as announced, could develop its own nuclear weapons program, or simply by a nuclear weapon from Pakistan.

The Vienna talks may offer an opportunity once again that should not be passed by.

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Heinz Gärtner
Former academic director of the Austrian Institute for International Affairs (ÖIIP), Prof. Dr. Heinz Gärtner (1951) currently lectures in Political Science at the University of Vienna and at Danube University in Krems and chairs the advisory board of the International Institute for Peace in Vienna and of the Commission on Strategy and Security of the Austrian Armed Forces. He has held several posts in the United States, including the Austrian Chair at Stanford University and a Marshall Plan Fellowship at Johns Hopkins and has published widely on issues of international security, transatlantic relations and the Middle East.

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