Washington and Tehran have started indirect talks in Vienna to relaunch the 2015 agreement to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran had accepted significant limitations on its nuclear program, including inspections, in exchange for the lifting of sanctions that were devastating its economy. Discussions are taking place through the other signatory countries of the agreement, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany.
The first meeting yesterday was described as constructive and successful by Western and Iranian participants. They agreed on a specific timeline with the goal of bringing Iran and the United States back into compliance with the 2015 accord in as little as two months! A new meeting is scheduled for Friday. This suggests that the pace of the talks will be intense.
But there are still many hurdles to overcome to reactivate the deal stupidly repudiated by Trump in 2018 even if Iran had honored its commitments.
The Trump administration had embarked on a policy of “maximum pressure” against Iran, hoping to bring about regime change in Tehran. It turned out to be a dismal failure. It is the Iranian people who unfortunately paid the price. Not the Ayatollahs.
Saudi Arabia and Israel don’t want it
It was at the instigation of his two friends, Bibi Netanyahu and Mohamed bin Salman, that Trump withdrew from the agreement. And in addition, it was one of the major achievements of Barack Obama. Iran has responded by stepping up its uranium enrichment program well beyond the limits set by the agreement and limiting the access of international inspectors to its nuclear facilities.
The fact that Iran is coming to the table with crippling economic sanctions still in place is, in itself, a major concession. Iran is rightly skeptical of the real US intentions. President Biden could have restored the deal as is by lifting the sanctions, but he refused to do so. He doesn’t seem to want a simple return to the original agreement. And a tougher deal might not be acceptable to Tehran. What to do then?
Sanctions must be lifted: time is running out
The Biden administration must be prepared to quickly lift the sanctions reimposed by Trump if Iran agrees to return to full compliance with the deal. Even if it means engaging in subsequent negotiations on other disputes between the United States and Iran.
All those diplomats from all the great world powers who are jostling around the negotiating table in Vienna can certainly find some amazing creative ways to get the United States and Iran to come to an agreement.
Yesterday’s meeting in Vienna is encouraging. Iran has welcomed recent optimistic comments by US Special Envoy Robert Malley on the lifting of sanctions. In Israel, his remarks dismayed senior officials who described them as “very disturbing.”
Jerusalem has powerful means of pressure in the United States (lobbies, members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans) to try to block any resumption of the agreement. It’s going to be interesting to see if Biden will resist them.