A photo, released by the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, shows technicians working at the Arak heavy water reactor’s secondary circuit, as officials and media visit the site, near Arak, southwest of Tehran, Iran. File/Associated Press
Washington has finally decided to address seriously the campaign pledge by President Joe Biden to re-join the 2015 agreement for limiting Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions. High level representatives of France, Britain, Germany, China, Russia and Iran are set to meet this week in Vienna to launch European Union-hosted talks on the US return to compliance and Iran’s resumption of its obligations.
US envoys will be present at the venue but not in the room where the multi-party talks will take place. The US is no longer a party to the agreement and has no seat around the table.
Donald Trump abandoned the pact in May 2018 and slapped 1,500 sanctions on Iran, in flagrant violation of the deal, in his failed “maximum pressure campaign” designed to force Iran to capitulate to a dozen unacceptable US demands or initiate regime change.
Tehran refuses direct talks with the US until it re-enters the nuclear deal and ends sanctions while Washington, which seeks to broaden the deal to include other issues, is prepared to sit down with the Iranians. Iran takes the view that meetings with the US are “unnecessary” as there is nothing to negotiate in the deal itself. The issue under discussion is how and when to return to compliance. Tehran has rejected “step-by-step” easing of sanctions and demands the lifting of all sanctions. This means sanctions connected to the nuclear deal and sanctions imposed due to Iran’s regional activities, human rights violations, and other issues.
Working groups will formulate proposals which will be presented to the two sides by European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, with the aim of identifying simultaneous steps they can take.
While arguing the US must return to compliance first as it deserted the deal, Iran has shown flexibility since February 1st when Foreign Minister Javad Zarif proposed a European Union choreographed process for the two sides to resume their obligations simultaneously. Unfortunately, by stubbornly insisting that Iran must be the first to return to compliance, the Biden administration undermined its credibility with Iran and the other parties to the deal. Without trust there can be no return to the deal. To create a positive atmosphere the US will have to make meaningful concessions such as dropping its veto on a $5 billion International Monetary Fund loan for Iran and allowing foreign banks to free $7 billion in US-blocked Iranian funds.
The Russian ambassador in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, told The Guardian that there have been key changes in the US position although it would take time and effort to reach full implementation by both sides.
Zarif has said that once the US is in compliance, Iran will “immediately” cease activities regarded as breaches of the accord which Iran carried out in response to Trump’s abandonment and sanctions. He also made the point that there is no time to lose as Iran will soon enter its presidential election campaign period, when President Hassan Rouhani, who helped negotiate the deal, will be a lame-duck. Zarif warned that once a new president is chosen, it could take up to six months to form a government. Furthermore, Rouhani’s successor may not favour the deal and could resist or scupper Iran’s return to compliance.
During a cabinet meeting last week, Rouhani urged Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to “be more active than before (and) pursue negotiations daily to eliminate sanctions” which have forced Iran’s economy to contract and are harming the country’s 85 million people.
Biden has, reportedly, waited to engage until after his COVID recovery legislation has been adopted by Congress and is being enacted. He has to resist anti-Iran hawks in his own Demo- cratic party as well as Republicans to move ahead with a return to the deal, which is the main foreign policy achievement and a chief legacy of the Obama administration in which Biden was vice president. Renouncing the deal would mean rejecting this achievement and legacy. He is also under pressure from Democratic party progressives and Iranian exile organisations who have become impatient over the two-month delay in returning to the deal. Delay emboldened opponents to organise and exert pressure on Biden.
A poll conducted in the US show that 60 per cent of citizens back the deal. The solid majority favouring the deal in the US is highly significant. Washington’s policy-makers and legislators continue to resent the 1979 overthrow of the shah by the anti-US mullahs and revolutionaries. Since then, US hardliners, urged on by Israel, have demonised Iran and its rulers. Meanwhile, Iranian hardliners have carried out their own anti-US demonisation campaign. They could build on widespread antipathy to the US because of the 1953 coup by the US and Britain to oust nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh who nationalised Iran’s oil sector. Many Iranians see him as their country’s main chance to emerge as a democracy and condemn the US and Britain which left them under the thumb of Shah Reza Pahlavi who ruled until the revolution overthrew and exiled him.
A survey in Iran reveals that 51 per cent approve of the nuclear deal, the highest rating since May 2019 when Iran was in compliance and before Trump escalated his destructive sanctions.
Iranians are clearly less enthusiastic about returning to the deal because they do not trust the US and the Europeans to carry out their obligations, which they failed to do before Trump moved into the White House. Under the Obama administration, the US Treasury Department continued to enforce secondary sanctions which prevented European governments, banks and firms from investing and doing business in Iran, denying that country all the benefits expected from the deal.