Here is Why There Won't be a Deal in Vienna

Published August 20th, 2022 - 06:39 GMT
Ebrahim Raisi (L) and atomic energy chief Mohammad Eslami, visiting the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant
Iran's president Ebrahim Raisi accompanied by atomic energy chief Mohammad Eslami, visiting the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant on 8 October 2021 (AFP Photo/HO/Iranian Presidency)

Iran is seeking assurance from the Biden administration that a future US government will not go back on the nuclear agreement.

For more than a year, Iran and the US, the geopolitical foes, have tried to overcome their differences to restore the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, which was unilaterally abandoned by US President Donald Trump. 

Diplomats from Iran, the US, the European Union and other signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) met in Vienna earlier this month amid hopes of a major breakthrough. The latest round of talks was held to discuss a draft of the text, which the EU officials had prepared to iron out differences between Washington and Tehran. 

On August 15, Iran sent its response to the EU, which essentially demanded the United States give a widespread relief in economic sanctions and provide a commitment that any future US administration would not walk back on the nuclear deal as Trump did in 2018. 

It remains uncertain if Iran and the US will show flexibility to reach an agreement, which can uplift the Iranian economy and help defuse tensions in the Middle East. 

Iran’s hardliner President Ebrahim Raisi came to power last year on the back of support from a conservative political base, which criticised his reformist predecessor Hassan Rouhani’s rapprochement policy with the West that eventually led to the JCPOA. 

“I think there is a consensus within the Iranian establishment that they need more concessions to sell to the Iranian public,” says Ryan Bohl, a MENA analyst with RANE, a US-based risk intelligence company. 

Iran’s domestic politics can be a factor in prolonging a settlement. 

“I think that element does exist, but Raisi was put in place by the Supreme Leader (Ali Khamenei) as well, who is also skeptical of the West after the last nuclear negotiations just resulted in the deal being torn up once the US changed administrations,” Bohl tells TRT World. 

A frustrated EU has had enough of the talks, which have dragged on for 16 months after the election of US President Joe Biden but haven’t produced any concrete results. 

According to a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) story published on August 17, EU officials are no longer interested in playing the negotiator to kickstart the difficult dialogue. 

“Iranian leadership wants a US guarantee that it will not withdraw from the agreement again,” says a Tehran-based political analyst, who wants to stay anonymous. 

“I mean we know that they cannot get that guarantee. They know it too, but they pretend otherwise. They want to come back to their supporters and say ‘did you see that we were much better than the Rouhani administration?’,” the Iranian analyst tells TRT World. 

Raisi is concerned about alienating his conservative supporters if he signs an agreement, which is similar to what Rouhani had agreed to, says the analyst. 

As a result, Tehran is seeking more concessions including a large sanctions relief from the US to show that they have gotten a better deal than the previous administration could manage. 

But giving in to the Iranian demands, especially one pertaining to a guarantee to preserve the nuclear deal, is not going to be easy for the Biden administration as it’s hard to promise that a future US government will not reapply sanctions on Iran. 

“The point is Iran in this situation cannot get anything more than the JCPOA, this administration needs the agreement because the sanctions are very harsh, but they cannot say this to their supporters, they have to say that we get something more, which is impossible in this situation,” says the Iranian analyst. 

Will Biden bend

As a result, the Raisi government wants to ensure at least some assurances from the US that if another administration leaves the deal as Trump did four years ago, Washington should compensate Tehran’s financial losses. Some experts say that Iran’s compensation demands are now the main issue stalling the deal to happen. 

Iran also wants the US to remove sanctions on Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). 

The US has imposed significant sanctions on the IRGC due to the group’s activities across the Middle East. If the Biden administration decides to restore the JCPOA, it means they will lift sanctions on Iran’s banking system and export industry, but US sanctions on the IRGC will still stay in place. 

“One of the main issues in these new negotiations was about the sanctions on Iran's Revolutionary Guards. We still don't know what exactly they decided about it,” says the Iranian analyst.

The US has not given any indication of easing sanctions on the IRGC. 

"We have long called these demands extraneous. They have no place in Vienna. They have no place in the discussions regarding a potential return to compliance with the JCPOA," said the US State Department spokesperson Ned Price during a press conference on Monday. 

For the Iranians, it’s important to have some sort of insurance on the nuclear agreement. 

“They also want stronger concessions because in the back of their mind it's possible that Trump returns in 2024 and this deal does not last more than 2-3 years, and so they want to maximise its benefits while they can,” says Bohl.


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