LONDON: Qatar has stepped up its role as a mediator in the negotiations between the US and Iran about the future of the latter’s nuclear program.
After nearly a year of EU-brokered talks in Austria, officials said time is running out to strike a deal.
At the request of Tehran and Washington, Doha has been acting as an intermediary in the talks, which are taking place in Vienna, delivering messages between the parties and seeking to allay Iranian fears that the US might pull out of the deal in the future.
Those concerns stem from the Trump administration’s sudden withdrawal in 2018 from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal. The agreement was the result of a lengthy and intense diplomatic process between Iran and the US, Russia, China, the UK, France, Germany and an EU delegation.
Qatari officials have also been working to facilitate direct talks between Washington and Tehran, should a deal be reached, to ensure that any outstanding issues, such as prisoner exchanges and additional sanctions relief, can be addressed in the future, a diplomat briefed on the talks told The Financial Times.
“Both sides really need a deal and there’s a willingness on both sides but the biggest problem is trust,” the diplomat said. “They each think the other side doesn’t want it, which is not legitimate.”
An Iranian official refused to discuss Doha’s role in the process but said Qatar “and one or two other countries have brought messages (from the US) in some cases.”
Western officials are pressuring Iran to agree to a deal within days, warning that if this fails to happen the already-ailing agreement will be redundant because of advances Tehran has made in its nuclear program. Iran has been enriching uranium to ever-higher levels for several years and has progressed with other aspects of nuclear-arms production since the 2015 deal began to break down.
In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iran had significantly decreased its breakout time — the time required to produce enough uranium for a single nuclear bomb — to much less than a year, threatening to undermine a core tenet of the original deal.
The parties are said to be close to an agreement but some outstanding issues have yet to be resolved. The Financial Times reported that a demand by Moscow at the weekend for guarantees that US sanctions, imposed on Russia after Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, will not impede its trade with Iran has threatened to complicate the negotiations and further added to the sense of urgency.
But the parties have also said that they will continue to negotiate “if they reach an agreement.”
The diplomat said: “The biggest mistake with the 2015 deal was the talks stopped after it was signed. Initially, neither side trusted one another and needed signs of good faith but now there are positive movements. The Iranians now see Biden as someone they can negotiate with.”
The resolution last year of a diplomatic feud between Qatar and a number of Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia, has allowed Doha to build on its reputation as a regional intermediary and diplomatic interlocutor. It assisted in peace talks between the US and the Taliban prior to the latter’s takeover of Afghanistan, and was designated a “major non-NATO ally” by Washington in January this year.
Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, Qatar’s importance to the West has once again spiked, as it is one of the largest global producers of Liquid Natural Gas and so a potential source to replace dwindling Russian gas supplies to Europe and North America.
Ali Vaez, an expert on Iran at international think tank Crisis Group, told The Financial Times that a major issue with intermediaries at the Vienna talks has been that there was no one both sides fully trust to “share things they were not comfortable with.”
But Rob Malley, the US’s top negotiator, has for a long time had a “very good relationship” with Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister, Vaez explained.
“Qatar’s relationship with Iran changed post the regional embargo and so all the stars aligned for the Qataris to step in,” he added.
“There was no one else who had the personal ties to both sides and was better placed geostrategically at this point in time to play the role.”