World powers are meeting in Vienna to see if the United States and Iran can set aside their differences, and U.S. economic sanctions, to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons.
(CN) — Top U.S. diplomats re-engaged with Tehran on Tuesday in indirect talks to save the Iran nuclear deal, an agreement that former U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally put on life-support nearly three years earlier.
Coordinated by the European Union, the summit in Vienna returns negotiators to the city where the historic deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was signed in 2015. Though the talks today did not put American and Iranian diplomats in the same room, the hope is that they will bring about direct parley between Washington and Tehran and a thaw in relations.
Even though U.S. President Joe Biden says he is willing to rejoin the deal, the talks might fizzle out due to a lack of trust, pressure from political forces in both the U.S. and Iran opposed to the deal, and irreconcilable differences.
Iran is holding presidential elections in June and a victory by a hardliner could kill the deal. Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s moderate president who negotiated the deal in 2015, cannot run for another term.
During the Obama administration, the original deal had been hailed as a major breakthrough in relations between the U.S. and Tehran. Diplomats hoped it would become a central pillar for Middle East peace by halting Iran from developing nuclear weapons in exchange for lifting crippling U.S. economic sanctions on Iran. Once Trump took office, however, those hopes were dashed.
Calling it the “worst deal ever negotiated,” Trump sought to force Tehran to buckle under sanctions and sign up to even tougher terms, as favored by Israel and hawkish politicians in Washington. But the Trump administration’s “maximum-pressure” policy failed. Instead of weakening Iran’s regime, Tehran stepped up its support for its allies in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Shia militias in Iraq and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. Amid survived internal strife caused by Trump’s expanded sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, Iran’s nuclear program has only accelerated.
In January 2020, Trump brought the conflict with Iran to a dangerous low point with the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani via U.S. drone attack.
The EU, which acted as the chief mediator between the U.S., China, Russia and Iran in 2015, had celebrated the deal as a signature achievement and an important example of its ability to solve international problems. The United Kingdom also signed the deal and continues to support it.
After Trump withdrew from the agreement in May 2018, the EU was unable to keep it from unraveling further but the former president’s aggressive tactics seriously damaged relations with European allies. The U.S. stance angered European companies eager to do business in Iran.
Biden’s new approach has earned accolades in Tehran.
“We find this position realistic and promising. It could be the start of correcting the bad process that had taken diplomacy to a dead end,” said Ali Rabiei, the Iranian government spokesman, on the eve of Tuesday’s talks.
Since the U.S. dropped out of the deal, Iran too has broken the deal’s terms. It is enriching uranium and stockpiling it beyond the agreement’s limits, building more advanced centrifuges and making uranium metal used for warheads. It is now estimated that the time Iran needs to build a bomb’s worth of fissile material has narrowed from a year to three months.
Besides building up its nuclear program, Iran also curbed the inspection requirements under the deal and has begun to shield some information from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Following the assassination in November of one of its top nuclear scientists, Mohsen Fahkizadeh, the Iranian parliament — the Majles — passed a law that threatens to severely restrict inspections. For the moment, that law is not being enforced. The scientist was allegedly killed by Israel.
Biden has appointed Robert Malley as his special envoy on Iran, a clear sign that the White House may be ready to soften the tone on Tehran. Malley helped negotiate the deal for the Obama administration.
Malley advocates a diplomatic approach to dealing with Iran, and he has been a fierce critic of Trump’s policy. Until recently he was the head of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank that aims to find diplomatic solutions and prevent conflict. His appointment was blasted by Republicans in the U.S. who say Malley will be too soft on Iran.
For now, the two sides are at a stalemate with each saying the other side must come into compliance with the deal first.
Tehran insists that as many as 1,600 American sanctions must be lifted before it will keep up its side of the agreement. The U.S. is demanding Iran rein in its uranium enrichment. The Biden administration also is seeking to extend “sunset” provisions in the deal allowing Iran to resume some nuclear enrichment and curb its ballistic missile capabilities.
Iran denies it is seeking to build nuclear weapons. The U.S. and Israel say a nuclear-armed Iran is becoming an ever-more perilous possibility and a threat to the region. Israel asserts Iran is two years away from developing a nuclear weapon.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.