Talks resume today in Vienna between Iran and negotiators from America, western Europe, Russia and China on a last-ditch effort to salvage the 2015 treaty limiting Iran’s nuclear research, abandoned in 2018 by President Trump and then substantially breached by Tehran. Few expect much, if any, progress. Six rounds of indirect talks were held between April and June, then halted during Iran’s presidential election campaign. This led to the installation of Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner who has repeatedly denounced the treaty and who appears determined to force the world to drop sanctions on Iran without his government making any real effort to stop its development of a nuclear bomb or limit its support for global terrorism.
Both the Biden administration and Iran seem ready to abandon the talks if they do not get their way. US officials say their strategy is not brinkmanship or playing games, but to disabuse Iran’s new negotiators of “false expectations”. Mr Raisi wants the new Iranian regime to portray “strength and determination” and is barely swayed by the dire economic situation in his country or the recent riots over water shortages and hardships.
These false expectations include a demand that the world drop not only sanctions imposed over Iran’s efforts to manufacture a nuclear weapon, but those also imposed for its rampant interference in the affairs of its neighbours and its help for terrorists and insurgents around the Middle East. Iran’s real motive, the West believes, is simply to spin out the talks while it increases production of fissile material to produce a viable nuclear warhead in as little as five or six weeks. To conceal its aims, it is treating United Nations inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Authority roughly and has refused them access to replace broken monitoring cameras at a site the authority deems essential to reviving the deal.
American hopes that China and Russia, which each maintain reasonable links with Tehran, can put pressure on its leadership are fading, largely because of worsening overall US relations with both fellow negotiators. Washington has said that its patience is limited and that “every option is on the table” — a none-too-subtle suggestion that it is ready to use airstrikes, or sanction those that Israel is itching to carry out, on Iran’s nuclear installations. A diplomatic solution is still the preferred option, however.
There are hints that the US is ready for an “interim” solution, which would remove some sanctions in return for a partial rollback of Iran’s recent nuclear moves. But this has little appeal for Tehran. The earlier lifting of western sanctions did much less for its economy than Iran had hoped, largely because investors were wary of the lawless business regime and of rampant corruption. Iran also, understandably, wants an assurance that no future US president, especially a re-elected Donald Trump, would reimpose sanctions. No US president can bind his successor.
Iran appears to believe that its intransigence will give it more bargaining power. It is a delusion. Given the partisan divide in the US, this would make it harder for Mr Biden to make any concessions. It would also toughen the Europeans, who are pushing hardest for a deal. Israel would take it as proof of the need for a pre-emptive first strike. Already Iran has gone far beyond the limits of the 2015 deal. It may think it can now use its power to halt the flow westwards of Afghan refugees as a lever. Its negotiators need to learn realism — fast.