Tehran, Iran – Representatives of the world powers that signed a 2015 nuclear deal are headed to Vienna on Tuesday to save the landmark accord, but the path forward appears long and arduous.
News on Friday that remaining members of the accord – Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom – will hold in-person talks was greeted as a welcome development to avoid a total breakdown.
In a late-night Clubhouse voice chat, Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said last week the “deadlock is being broken” on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as a “childish” argument over who should act first comes to an end.
Representatives from Iran and the United States, however, will not be in the same room together in Vienna, as Iran insists there will be no direct or indirect talks between the two countries before the US lifts the harsh sanctions former President Donald Trump imposed after unilaterally abandoning the deal in 2018.
A year later, Iran started scaling back its commitments under the deal in response as the US continued its “maximum pressure” campaign despite opposition by the other signatories.
Sina Azodi, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said both Iran and the US have recently shown the political will to restore the accord.
But while Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a tweet on Friday that the JCPOA signatories would direct their focus to “rapidly finalise sanction-lifting” in Vienna, that may be easier said than done.
“The issue here is that Iran’s actions to violate the deal are reversible, whereas for the US, it will be more difficult because of Trump administration’s scorched-earth policy to destroy JCPOA as much possible, and the complicated web of sanctions,” Azodi told Al Jazeera.
Zarif said earlier this year that the US had imposed, reimposed, or relabelled some 1,600 sanctions on Iran, inflicting $1 trillion worth of direct and indirect economic damage.
It is unclear how those sanctions will be revoked, or how many sanctions will eventually need to be lifted for Iran to make good on its promise of coming back to full compliance with the nuclear deal.
‘On the right path’
Trump administration officials made it a mission in 2020 to impose sanctions with new designations – namely “terrorism” and human rights abuses – on already-sanctioned Iranian individuals and entities in an effort to make it more difficult for a potential Joe Biden administration to come back to the nuclear deal.
According to Diako Hosseini, a senior researcher with the Center for Strategic Studies, the research arm of the Iranian president’s office, Iran expects all sanctions – under any labels – imposed by Trump to be lifted.
“It appears officials in Tehran understand conditions within the US and the Biden administration’s limitations well, but at the same time that is an issue related to the US, not Iran,” he told Al Jazeera.
Hosseini said upcoming negotiations will be difficult, especially since there may be stark contrasts between what different sides expect each other to do to restore the JCPOA, expectations that need to be reconciled.
“I don’t expect a sudden and major success, but we can be sure that we’re on the right path. I expect we’ll have a clearer vision of what all sides need to do to return to their commitments under JCPOA at the end of the Vienna talks, which is an acceptable success for the start,” he said.
Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, said he believes more than one round of negotiations is needed to find a way forward, but the first round must not fail.
“It is not hard to predict that there will be a mismatch between Iranian expectations and what the US is willing to offer, but with pragmatism, both sides would be able to find a mutually acceptable way forward,” he told Al Jazeera.
He said the key is how moves to restore the JCPOA are sequenced, “but if Tehran goes in with maximalist expectations, it will end up empty-handed”.
Iran’s foreign ministry said earlier this week that Tehran will not accept a “step-by-step plan” to lift layers of American sanctions, and expects the US to take the “final step” of lifting all sanctions imposed by Trump.
Why talk now?
Some observers say the restarting of nuclear talks was influenced by the fact that Iran and China signed a 25-year comprehensive cooperation accord in late March after Foreign Minister Wang Yi travelled to Tehran.
Others believe the time crunch on restoring the deal has had an impact. For one, a three-month agreement Iran reached with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to temporarily keep the camera tapes of its surveillance of nuclear sites comes to an end in late May.
That agreement averted a crisis in late February as without it the global nuclear watchdog would face a significant gap in its monitoring of Iranian nuclear activity.
Moreover, the Iranian presidential elections in June are fast approaching, likely promising a conservative or hardline president – possibly with a military background – who may not be as in favour of preserving the JCPOA as relatively moderate outgoing President Hassan Rouhani.
But the Atlantic Council’s Azodi said he remains optimistic for a breakthrough, not least because Rouhani wishes to leave office having lifted sanctions for multiple reasons, including saving his political reputation.
“In short, his administration will focus its attention on working to lift the sanctions as soon as possible, preferably before he leaves office,” he said.
‘Limited window of opportunity’
In the meantime, hardliners in Iran’s parliament are trying to maintain an active role in the future of the JCPOA.
On Sunday, a number of lawmakers released a public statement saying the only way the US can return to the nuclear deal would be for Rouhani’s administration to submit a report on the full lifting of sanctions to Parliament, which would have to approve it before it could be finalised.
The November assassination of senior nuclear and military scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in a brazen attack Iran blames on Israel emboldened Parliament’s hardliners, who passed a law that enabled boosting uranium enrichment and limiting IAEA inspections.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said Iran is “in no hurry” to have sanctions lifted as local production is picking up after taking a major hit from sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic, and Iran may increase uranium enrichment to 60 percent “if the country needs it”.
The Center for Strategic Studies’ Hosseini said he finds it unlikely Parliament will want to stop negotiations now, especially since the talks would not be possible without a green light from the supreme leader.
“But if the negotiations don’t yield results expected by the Iranian side, conservatives – who are highly motivated close to the elections – will be further emboldened, and then there’s no telling what they might do to stop negotiations progressing,” he said.
“So, the window of opportunity is very limited for all sides.”