Ali Vaez directs the Iran project at the International Crisis Group
Destruction is almost always easier than creation or, in the case of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, restoration. After former US president Donald Trump abandoned the multilateral accord in 2018, which led Iran to breach it a year later, the task of bringing both countries back into the fold was bound to be hard. More than a year of frozen diplomacy and escalatory steps — from a series of tit-for-tat attacks on Iraqi soil, to nuclear breaches — did not help. Given this remarkably negative backdrop, the talks between Iran, the US and the deal’s other parties that started in Vienna last week were a success. However, whether they will achieve their objective is anyone’s guess.
The talks were reportedly business-like, if stilted, given that Iranian and US diplomats sat in separate hotels and relied on others to shuttle between them. At least Tehran and Washington know where they want to go: the status quo ante, with Trump-era sanctions lifted and Iran reversing nuclear infringements. Even so, the path is strewn with mines.
In the run-up to the talks, the Iranians believed that US negotiators wanted to preserve the leverage they believed sanctions afforded them. The Biden administration has characterised Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy of economic coercion and military intimidation as an abject failure. Yet it has also taken no substantive steps to relax sanctions, not even on humanitarian trade, even though the Iranian people are suffering from a fourth wave of the pandemic.
In the eyes of Iran’s leaders, Washington’s reluctance to make the first move despite being largely responsible for the current impasse signals an ulterior motive: that the US seeks to pocket Iranian concessions on its nuclear programme without effectively delivering on economic relief. Iran’s negotiators contend that they will settle for no less than a complete removal of Trump-era sanctions.
Conversely, the US delegation went into the talks believing that, while their Iranian counterparts were serious in wanting to see the deal restored, they may not be politically capable of getting there. The lame-duck Hassan Rouhani administration wants to revive its key foreign policy achievement and secure an economic reprieve before it leaves office in August. Yet hardliners seem reluctant to allow a breakthrough that could tilt the presidential election on June 18 towards their more pragmatic rivals.
With the stakes high and trust non-existent, it has fallen to the other signatories to break the ice. The next obstacle is sequencing the steps each side must take in a way that allows both to save face. Tehran wants Washington to lift sanctions first, before rolling back its own nuclear violations. Yet that will never fly with those in the US Congress who are not eager to return to the same deal they opposed in 2015 and who could yet block Biden’s domestic agenda.
Iran’s demand for verified sanctions relief may prove another obstacle. Burnt by past experience, Tehran contends that Washington can remove the sanctions on paper, but still leave enough red tape to preserve their actual effects. Unlike Iranian steps, which can be verified by the UN nuclear watchdog, there is neither an objective mechanism nor an impartial referee to ensure that Iran’s financial and trade ties with the outside world are fully restored.
Hammering out a mutually acceptable road map will take time. A relatively lengthy process could work well for Iranian hardliners, as it is unlikely to entail significant electoral implications. This would allow more hardline elements to take over the presidency and consolidate their grip on power. If a plan was developed by say June, implementation — which involves, inter alia, dismantling centrifuges and shipping out enriched uranium — would be done by Rouhani before he leaves office. His successor would then reap the economic benefits.
Yet it is equally possible that the talks will collapse. This week’s attack on the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and Iran’s decision to retaliate by enriching to 60 per cent level will make things even harder. Voices on both sides are urging the pursuit of more leverage while hoping the other side blinks, arguing that Washington should tighten its squeeze on Iran’s economy, while Tehran should further its nuclear programme and bolster its support for regional partners.
Precedent suggests that reciprocal escalation is likely amid diplomatic stalemate. That would mean another race of sanctions versus centrifuges, and further turmoil in the region, none of which would benefit anyone. Instead neither side should allow the long shadow of the “maximum pressure” era to define the future.