The Iranian regime continued to give the impression that it was in control of negotiations with six world powers about its nuclear program on Monday, when Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh rejected the notion that ongoing discussions in Vienna might result in an interim agreement that prevents the total collapse of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal but fails to restore full compliance with it. That agreement has more or less been on life support since 2018, when then U.S. President Donald Trump halted participation by the U.S. and began re-imposing and expanding economic sanctions.
Although Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China all remained as participants in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Tehran soon began violating its commitments and eventually advanced the country’s nuclear program to the point of exceeding previous high levels of uranium enrichment. Tehran also installed new “cascades” of advanced centrifuges which could greatly accelerate the process of further enriching uranium to weapons grade, and has produced small quantities of uranium metal, a substance with virtually no practical role other than as a component of a nuclear warhead.
All of this has helped to fuel public concern over “breakout” window for nuclear weapons capability in Iran, prompting officials from the US, Britain, France, and Germany to warn that time was running short for the Vienna talks, and that Tehran would have to begin negotiating in “good faith” in order to salvage them. Some officials even went so far as to say that military action was on the table if the regime in Iran did not step back from its demands for comprehensive, up-front sanctions relief without any precondition. However, there is presently little to no evidence that there has been a change in the regime’s approach to negotiations, yet all parties to the Vienna talks are either lauding their progress or showing renewed interest in extending the process in hopes of a breakthrough.
If there is any sign of change from Tehran, it comes in the form of Khatibzadeh’s statement that there has been progress on “all four issues” during the most recent round of negotiations, the second to be held in Vienna since the overall process resumed in late November following a five-month pause initiated by selected president Ebrahim Raisi. So far, his administration has been saying that it expected the latest talks to focus solely on one issue: the lifting of sanctions. However, in clarifying his account of recent progress, the Foreign Ministry spokesman identified “nuclear issues” as one of the topics of discussion.
The regime’s critics are unlikely to view this as a significant concession, though. Each of the three other issues Khatibzadeh mentioned were merely variations on the regime’s core demand. He asserted that “good progress” had been made toward “removing sanctions” and also providing Tehran with “verification” and “guarantees” regarding the effects and longevity of the relief in question. Whereas Khatibzadeh described this supposed progress as “the result of the efforts made by all parties to reach a stable agreement,” his boss at the Foreign Ministry assumed a more confrontational tone in commenting on the same topic.
Regime Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian credited “the initiatives of the Iranian side” with compelling Western powers to scale back their own demands. He characterized French negotiators as having played “the role of the bad cop” in previous rounds of negotiations, but said that France was now “behaving reasonably.” He also boasted that the US was accepting the “realities” of the situation that underlies this negotiation, thereby implying that the regime has greater leverage in the talks than was previously acknowledged.
Signs of that confidence appeared last week when officials of the Iranian regime demanded that South Korea release frozen assets, regardless of the status of US sanctions and the outcome of the Vienna talks. Also last week, the regime announced its expectation that current and former US officials, including Donald Trump, face trial in an “Islamic court” over the January 2020 elimination of Iranian regime’s top terrorist commander, Qassem Soleimani. On Monday, Iranian authorities doubled down by announcing their own sanctions on more than 50 Americans.
The US quickly responded to that announcement by accusing the regime in Tehran of “threats and provocations,” and White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan underscored that Tehran would face “severe consequences” for any attacks upon the sanctioned individuals or any other US sanctions, by the Iranian regime itself or by any of its regional proxies.
By all accounts, nothing has meaningfully changed in the more than six weeks since Vienna talks resumed – at least not in ways that benefit the Western negotiating parties. In fact, US officials spoke to their South Korean counterparts right around the time of Iran’s demand for unfrozen assets, leading to much speculation that the White House was on the verge of defying the advice offered by all of Tehran’s most serious critics, and offering new, unearned concessions as a means of keeping the clerical regime present at negotiations they have continually handled like a cat and mouse game as Iranians call it.