Modern Diplomacy
The Fate of the Nuclear Deal with Iran

It is becoming increasingly clear that neither Washington nor Tehran want the Vienna talks to fail and the confrontation to escalate. Both sides understand that they will not be able to achieve their maximalist goals, writes Valdai Club expert Alexander Maryasov.

Negotiations have been going on in Vienna for almost a year on the renewal of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to settle the Iranian nuclear problem.

This important non-proliferation document, agreed upon between the United States and Iran through the mediation of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China, noticeably limited Tehran’s nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of anti-Iranian sanctions and actually closed the way for it to develop nuclear weapons.

However, the withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA under the administration of Republican President Donald Trump in 2018 and the subsequent refusal of Iran to fulfil a number of its obligations under the nuclear deal as a response posed a serious threat to the prospects for nuclear non-proliferation. Iran began to gradually increase its volume of uranium enrichment, and to improve centrifuge equipment. This caused growing concern in the United States and among other Western countries, who feared the switch of Iran’s nuclear activities to the development of nuclear weapons, despite Tehran repeatedly stating that it had no such intentions. Such concerns, as well as the failure of the policy of maximum sanctions pressure on Iran, pushed the administration of Democratic President George Biden to return to the JCPOA.

In April 2021, indirect Iranian-American negotiations began in Vienna through the mediation of the other participants of the JCPOA. Under pressure from opponents of the nuclear deal within the American establishment, the US negotiating team tried to supplement the text of the JCPOA with provisions to extend the terms for restricting Tehran’s nuclear activities (sunset clauses) and to impose restrictions on its missile programme and regional activities. When that failed, Washington wanted Tehran to agree to a new, “improved” nuclear deal.

The team of the pragmatic outgoing president Rouhani, who was focused on restoring ties with the West, was inclined to compromise in order to bring the United States back to the JCPOA as soon as possible in order to restore its shattered image and strengthen the positions of Iranian liberals ahead of the upcoming presidential elections in June 2021. However, the Iranian conservatives, having established control over the parliament, severely suppressed the “agreement” intentions of Rouhani, demanding the strict implementation of the law previously adopted by the Majlis on intensifying the implementation of the Iranian nuclear programme. 

With the victory of the conservative Ebrahim Raisi in the presidential elections, Tehran’s negotiating position became noticeably tougher. The Iranians demanded the restoration of the JCPOA in its original form without any additions or exceptions. They considered it of fundamental importance that Washington lifts all the sanctions imposed on Iran by the Trump administration, as well as the guarantees by the Americans that the future US administration would not withdraw from the nuclear deal.

All rounds of the Vienna talks so far have taken place in a positional struggle. However, gradually both sides, which were objectively interested in restoring the JCPOA, came to the understanding that without achieving at least minimal, face-saving compromise outcomes, it would be impossible to agree on maintaining the nuclear deal. Such an understanding was sought by the mediating countries in the negotiations, including Russia, which proposed to implement the tactics of a gradual, step-by-step removal of the mutual concerns of Tehran and Washington. The discussion on specific areas and volumes of sanctions to be lifted and the sequence of actions of the parties passed into the practical plane. According to recent statements by official representatives of Iran, the United States and the mediating countries, the draft document on the restoration of the JCPOA as a whole is practically agreed upon. However, several issues remain unresolved, including the issue of the exclusion of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the American list of terrorist organisations in exchange for Iran’s agreement to limit its military activity in the region, including the cessation of attacks on American facilities, as well as guarantees that the United States will not withdraw from the JCPOA in the future.

Iran has taken a number of steps to create a positive atmosphere around the Vienna talks. An agreement was reached between Tehran and the IAEA to resolve issues of conducting inspections at some of Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to clarify the reliability of information about possible military aspects of its nuclear activities in the past. According to information confirmed by the IAEA, Iran has begun the conversion of part of its reserves of highly enriched uranium, up to 60 percent, into materials for the production of medical isotopes.

Tehran released two persons of dual Iranian-British citizenship from prison in exchange for London’s unfreezing of $530 million paid by the Shah’s regime for military equipment ordered but not delivered to Iran.

The situation that arose in connection with the special military operation in Ukraine by the Russian armed forces in Ukraine has a certain impact on the negotiations in Vienna. Defending its interests, Moscow demanded from Washington guarantees that the sanctions it is imposing against Russia will not affect issues of its cooperation with Iran as part of the implementation of the JCPOA, as well as in general trade, economic and military-technical ties between the two countries. This raised fears that Moscow could complicate the negotiation process. However, tensions subsided when the United States provided such guarantees regarding nuclear cooperation with Iran, and Russia was satisfied with this. During the visit to Moscow of Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on March 15 , Sergey Lavrov assured his Iranian counterpart that Russia, as before, would do everything possible to restore the JCPOA.

The fuel crisis in the United States, which worsened after the ban on the import of energy resources from Russia to America, may soften Washington’s position at the negotiations in Vienna. 

It is becoming increasingly clear that neither Washington nor Tehran want the Vienna talks to fail and the confrontation to escalate. Both sides understand that they will not be able to achieve their maximalist goals, which means that intermediate compromise agreements are needed to keep the nuclear deal afloat, at least in the near future, and to continue the search for more long-term solutions. A situation is emerging that can be characterised by a figurative expression: a bad peace is better than a good quarrel.

Apparently, we should expect that, unless something unforeseen happens, the agreements between Iran and the United States will be reached during the next rounds of negotiations after the Iranian New Year holidays.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.