Gloomy mood as Iran nuclear talks resume in Vienna
A Wall Street Journal op-ed this week summarized a popular mood surrounding the return on Monday of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action talks in Vienna. The title, “Iran’s Nuclear Negotiators Make the U.S. Sit at the Kiddie Table,” refers to the fact that Iran has refused to allow the American delegation to sit at the negotiating table in Vienna, instead forcing its representatives to sit in a separate room, with the two sides talking through intermediaries. The op-ed’s authors, Ray Takeyh and Reuel Marc Gerecht, go into some detail to demonstrate how Tehran relishes humiliating Americans while granting no concessions itself.
On the substance of the talks, Takeyh and Gerecht say there is none, predicting that the negotiations will yield little, “no matter how much money Washington releases or how ardently Biden administration officials describe any follow-on talks as important steps toward a diplomatic solution.” They believe that Tehran’s atomic ambitions will continue to progress rapidly and it will develop high-yield, easily hidden centrifuges — the key to an unstoppable bomb program. Iran has in the past displayed an uncanny ability to advance its nuclear program and eviscerate international red lines with impunity.
Other observers in Vienna noted at the start of the seventh round of talks on Monday that the mood among negotiators was “somber if not outright gloomy,” according to a tweet by journalist Stephanie Liechtenstein.
Part of the problem is how Iran deals with the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose efforts to inspect its nuclear activities have been stymied by Tehran’s cagey maneuvers and stonewalling. Earlier this month, the organization’s head, Rafael Grossi, expressed his agency’s frustration by saying, “I would say we are flying in a heavily clouded sky,” regarding the IAEA’s ability to perform its monitoring function in Iran. “So we are flying and we can continue in this way, but not for too long.” He was referring to the fact that the IAEA has been unable to access surveillance footage of Iranian nuclear sites or online enrichment monitors and electronic seals since February.
Physical inspections have also become more problematic since the new hard-line government of President Ebrahim Raisi assumed power in August, as Tehran appears to have doubled down on developing new centrifuges and enriching uranium up to purity levels closer to those required for an atomic weapon. This opacity has fed long-standing fears that Iran could be developing the skills, materiel, and know-how required to build an atomic bomb.
In a last-ditch effort to improve access prior to the relaunch of the JCPOA talks, Grossi traveled to Iran last week, but on Wednesday reported that there had been “no progress” on the IAEA’s disputes with Tehran over monitoring, in particular the constraints placed on inspections earlier this year, outstanding questions over the presence of undeclared nuclear material at sites in Iran, and the treatment of IAEA staff in the country.
Grossi said that, in spite of his best efforts, “In terms of the substance... we were not able to make progress.” He added that he was “close to the point where I would not be able to guarantee continuity of knowledge” of Iran’s nuclear program. Grossi also raised concerns while in Tehran about “invasive” tactics against IAEA inspectors by Iran’s security forces, in violation of an agreement signed by Iran to protect them from “intimidation, from seizure of their property.”
But, for Iran, lack of progress in talks with Grossi appeared to be the desired outcome. In an amusing contrast to Grossi’s complaints, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that the talks were “cordial, frank and fruitful,” and that he and Grossi had “reached good agreements on continuing cooperation.”
Tehran's opacity has fed long-standing fears that it could be developing the skills, materiel, and know-how required to build an atomic bomb.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Putting a positive spin on the failed talks with the IAEA chief makes for good domestic politics in Iran, as does putting on a show of humiliating the US in Vienna and putting forward the most maximalist positions as the price for its mere return to the JCPOA talks. When the Vienna talks stopped in June, the interruption was expected to last only weeks, but Iran dragged it out for several months, while the P5+1 powers pleaded for its return to the talks. Tehran also played that to good effect at home, while making what is believed to be dangerous progress in its nuclear activities and reneging on its obligations under IAEA accords, not just the JCPOA, by denying it access to monitor those activities.
There are deep concerns all round that Iran will slow-walk the negotiations in Vienna while continuing to flout IAEA obligations. US negotiator Rob Malley warned that Washington would not “sit idly” if Iran delayed progress at the talks. “If (Iran) continues to do what it appears to be doing now, which is to drag its feet at the nuclear diplomatic table and accelerate its pace when it comes to its nuclear program... we’ll have to respond accordingly,” he told National Public Radio.
Malley also told the BBC on Saturday: “If Iran thinks it can use this time to build more leverage and then come back and say they want something better, it simply won't work. We and our partners won’t go for it.” He warned that Washington would be ready to ramp up the pressure on Tehran if talks collapse.
Other P5+1 representatives have also expressed concern at both Iran’s failure to cooperate with the IAEA and its foot-dragging. While Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s Vienna representative, said that he was “cautiously optimistic,” he warned in a tweet that “the talks can’t last forever. There is the obvious need to speed up the process.”
If Iran continues to stonewall during the Vienna talks or on cooperating with the IAEA, new sanctions could be used to bring about a change in its conduct. That is exactly what happened in 2011 and 2012, when the US employed severe new sanctions.
There are also other types of pressure. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, said last week that President Joe Biden insisted Iran “is not going to have a nuclear weapon.” If diplomacy fails, McKenzie said that “Central Command always has a variety of plans that we could execute, if directed.”
Negotiators are hoping against hope that the Vienna talks succeed in establishing a robust, verifiable regime to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. The alternatives are all gloomy: A nuclear weapons program in Iran irreversibly destabilizing the region, a nuclear arms race that no one can afford, or a devastating war that no one wants.
• Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views.