Negotiations over the re-implementation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are currently approaching the end of their eighth round in Vienna. The talks were stalled for five months following the appointment of Ebrahim Raisi as president by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and resumed at the end of November with his negotiators making even more assertive demands than they had made under the prior administration. The seventh round of talks ended in mid-December with little noteworthy progress, and the eighth round began on an accelerated schedule ahead of the New Year.
Most of the parties to those talks are still trying to promote an optimistic outlook on the prospective resolution of a crisis that has been building since 2018 when the US pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. However, various public statements indicate that there are still huge gaps between Tehran’s demands and any proposals that would be considered palatable to the US or its allies. French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian has explicitly stated that the negotiations are far away from any agreement, and that time is running short.
The other Western signatories have given much the same impression, but the US has notably refused to impose strict deadlines on the process. On one hand, American and European officials have both pointed to the end of January or the beginning of February as an effective deadline, but on the other hand, they have taken no steps to formalize that deadline. Instead, Western narratives about the Vienna talks have apparently begun to reshape themselves around the notion of an interim agreement that would meet the informal deadline without necessarily bringing an end to the negotiating process.
Tehran has plainly rejected the notion of any such interim agreement, and Raisi’s negotiators have declared that they are willing to remain engaged in the process for as long as it takes them to meet their demands. Meanwhile, those demands remain as clear non-starters for the Western powers. The regime’s Foreign Ministry continues to insist that the US must lift all sanctions that were imposed following the 2018 US withdrawal before the Islamic Republic even proceeds with negotiations on its own return to compliance with the restrictions put in place by the JCPOA.
Following the seventh round of the Vienna talks, Iranian officials even went so far as to declare that the relief they sought was from sanctions in any category, not just those targeting the regime’s nuclear activities. This is to say, Tehran is trying to use the Vienna talks to buy time.
On Wednesday, Reuters quoted an anonymous, senior Iranian official as seemingly raising the regime’s expectations once again. “Americans should give assurances that no new sanctions under any label would be imposed on Iran in future,” he said, implying that Tehran sees the prospective agreement as a path toward limiting Western pressure on all of the Iranian regime’s malign activities for a long time to come.
The same report demonstrated that the regime has every intention of beginning to exploit that agreement in absence of any concessions from its own side. “Iran needs a couple of weeks to verify sanctions removal,” said another official, reiterating prior statements from the Foreign Ministry regarding the possibility of Iranian oil sales to international markets. While the US has argued that a few days should be sufficient to verify that sanctions have been lifted, Tehran now expects to actually earn a substantial amount of revenue from oil sales before taking any steps to reverse its violations of the JCPOA.
Those violations are still accelerating, as more advanced cascades of centrifuges for the purpose of nuclear enrichment are installed in nuclear facilities in Iran. The year after the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, the Iranian regime resumed enriching uranium to its pre-2015 high of 20 percent fissile purity. Shortly thereafter, it pushed some of that material to the 60 percent level and began manufacturing a quantity of uranium metal, which has no practical function other than as part of a nuclear warhead.
At the same time, the regime continued to produce, stockpile, and test the ballistic missiles that could one day function as a delivery system for such a warhead. Amidst the eight-round of Vienna talks, the British Foreign Office loudly condemned deploying those weapons in war games a few weeks earlier. Yet this still failed to translate into a change of British posture at those talks, much less into an acknowledgment that real cooperation by the regime’s negotiators is presently unattainable.
Although the U.S. has strictly avoided that conclusion, too, approximately 110 Republican members of the US House of Representatives sent a letter to the State Department on Wednesday urging an exit from the Vienna talks and the enforcement of existing economic sanctions. The letter cited statements from Biden administration officials themselves to justify the conclusion that there is present “no productive diplomatic path forward” for the talks.
Among those statements was one by Rob Malley, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, which said it “seems very clear” that Tehran’s strategy is to continue advancing its nuclear program while also prolonging negotiations, in hopes of building leverage that will lead to an outcome more advantageous to the mullahs’ regime. “It won’t work,” he said.