Vienna, here we are – again. Six years after world powers concluded their negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program in Austria’s capital, diplomats are talking to each other again in the stucco-clad ballrooms of otherwise nearly deserted five-star hotels. Yet despite the refined setting, the talks won’t be a waltz in the park.
This time the EU is starting from a weaker position
The EU is trying to negotiate an agreement between the United States and Iran on the return of each party to the agreement. However, just like in July 2015, success is far from guaranteed. In fact, Europeans seem much weaker today than then, and it’s not just because of their dismal record in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. If anything, the last three years since the United States left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, have shown Europe’s incapacity to keep the chord alive beyond its vital functions.
It is true that France, Germany and the United Kingdom – the three European co-signatories of the agreement (E3) – have fought fiercely to prevent the agreement from crumbling, especially by torpedo America’s unilateral efforts to reinstate all United Nations sanctions against Iran in September 2020. However, they have not been able to maintain the economic openness promised to Tehran in exchange for strict supervision of its nuclear program. Even after the pandemic hit the Islamic Republic particularly hard, European governments failed to find a way to increase humanitarian trade, or even extend multilateral aid to Iran, in the face of persistent US sanctions.
Why a new deal will be hard to strike
Europeans are learning the hard way that it is one thing to rally countries around the world against a tyrant in the White House, but quite another to devise a plan for two sworn enemies with toxic domestic policies to once again find a breeding ground. ‘agreement. In addition, they too distrusted of an Iranian government that methodically dismantled its respect for the nuclear deal, while broadening its foothold in the wider region and violently suppressing popular dissent in its country.
Likewise, US President Joe Biden realizes that although he promised to reverse the deal on election campaign, it is difficult to enact. a compliance approach for compliance once in office. The previous administration had painstakingly constructed a “wall of sanctionsAgainst Iran to prevent the possible return of a successor to the JCPOA. Specifically, he went beyond simply reinstating all nuclear-related sanctions by the end of 2018 and deliberately repackaged some of them as measures against Iran’s missile program and regional activities, in order to make the removal of sanctions prohibitively expensive in political terms.
All of this was clear when Biden won the US vote in November 2020. Yet the Europeans missed the opportunity to set the stage for talks when time was running out. Since then, Iran has made significant progress in developing more efficient centrifuges and enriching uranium to 20% – well above the level needed for a civilian nuclear power program. It is now estimated that the time it would take Iran to accumulate enough fissile material for an atomic bomb has dropped from over a year to a few months.
Iran’s political calendar also limits the chances of compromise. His presidential election is barely ten weeks away, and it’s unclear how the next campaign will influence diplomatic dynamics. Of course, the outgoing president, President Hassan Rouhani, would like to see his successful signing – the lifting of international sanctions following the 2015 agreement – justified by a renewed agreement. However, the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has raised the bar for any deal by asking for assurances that this time Washington will keep its word. In addition, a hard-line dominated parliament has issued guidelines to drastically reduce international inspections, a step that has only been put on hold for a three-month window ending in late May, after the International Atomic Energy Agency scrambled to reach a temporary deal.
Europe’s difficult tasks ahead
For Europe, the negotiations that started in Vienna this week are the last chance register a case this is essential to its security, as the leaders have repeatedly stated. With the Austrian government hosting the talks and E3 representatives commuting between Americans and Iranians to their separate hotels, the EU – as chair of the JCPOA Joint Committee – is working on two lists of things to do. The first is to clarify what Tehran must do to return to respect on the nuclear front. The second – probably much longer – will explain precisely how Washington must reduce its sanctions architecture. Once this short-term return to the deal is secured, the parties can embark on the hard work of reducing Iran’s reach by putting in place a regional security architecture.
Without Europe’s mediation efforts, any agreement in such a suspicious atmosphere will be elusive. Yet it has taken far too long for the Europeans to step up their game and engage in this eleventh hour diplomatic dance – in the very city of their only foreign policy success of late.