Iran and US on a short runway in Vienna

19th February 2022

As the negotiations between Iran and the P5+ 1 world powers to revive the Iran nuclear deal progresses Jane Green considers the issues and the prospects for peace in the Middle East

Talks on the Iran nuclear deal continue in Vienna

Negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran nuclear deal, have been ongoing since early December 2021. Vienna has been the venue for these negotiations involving the Islamic Republic of Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and the European Union, in an effort to avert a devastating new war in the Middle East.

Ned Price, the US state department spokesperson, has warned that, “The runway is very, very short – weeks not months.” This assessment is confirmed by US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who has added that any hope of a deal is dependent on getting agreement on reductions in Iran’s nuclear programme.  With Iran achieving levels of uranium enrichment at 60%, the US argue that faster progress is needed.

Under the 2015 JCPOA, the Obama administration agreed to remove economic sanctions on Iran in return for the latter’s guarantee that it would keep the enrichment of uranium at lower levels.  Iran remained in compliance with the terms of the JCPOA but, a year after the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018, reimposing sweeping sanctions on Iran, the Iranian regime began to suspend some of its commitments, including the cap on uranium enrichment.

The regime in Tehran argues that it had no choice but to go down this path, to find ways to generate leverage to revive the deal, especially after other signatories to the agreement failed to counter the effects of the reimposed sanctions or tackle the unilateral withdrawal of the US.

The sanctions have had a crippling impact upon the Iranian economy and the regime is acutely conscious of the growing popular unrest in the country, stemming from the sanctions. This is as a result of factories and industrial complexes folding, unemployment skyrocketing and a rapid severe devaluation in the national currency.

As a consequence, the regime has begun to moderate its demands and preconditions to ensure the current negotiations do not collapse.  The Islamic Republic more than anything is concerned about the survival of the theocratic regime rather than worrying about the direction of Iranian social and economic policies.

In spite of negotiations not showing any signs of immediate breakthrough, in Tehran the official statements attempt to show that the negotiations are progressing. The Iranian position appears to be that if the negotiation is threatened, the leadership will change tack and proclaim an “heroic compromise” for the negotiations to go forward. Iran seriously needs the sanctions to be lifted.

There has been some movement recently with the US agreeing a waiver on some of the sanctions. The latest US move lifts the sanctions threat against foreign countries and companies from Russia, China and Europe that had been cooperating with Iran under the terms of the JCPOA.

The waivers permit foreign countries and companies to work on civilian projects at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power station, its Arak heavy water plant, and the Tehran Research Reactor without triggering US sanctions.  The US position is that the waivers are being restored in order to move forward the negotiations in Vienna.

However, Iran is attempting not to rely entirely upon the outcomes of the negotiations to address its economic crisis. The Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, travelled to China recently to secure a 25-year partnership agreement. Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian president, has travelled to Moscow recently with the same purpose.

Nevertheless, neither China nor Russia can economically or politically protect Iran’s position.  Neither can help to save Iran from the economic catastrophe confronting it if the US and UN economic and banking sanctions continue, or if negotiations fail and Iran continues with its uranium enrichment to weapons grade, 95% purity.

The Iranians are also concerned that any deal will not be subject to the vagaries of any change in US administration. Tehran wants binding commitments that if the US quits the deal, the EU will do more to defy secondary US sanctions by injecting real cash into the abortive trading mechanism, Instex, set up by the EU to bypass US sanctions.

The outcome of the negotiations is further complicated by the position of Israel where the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has warned that his country will not be bound by any agreement.  This underlines once again the precarious balance in the Middle East and the danger that, even if agreement is reached in Vienna, the hardline mavericks in Israel may still plunge the region into conflict.

For the US Biden’s policy is in essence the same as Trump with a softer cover. It aims to tame Iran to play a “constructive” part in the Middle East, as the US aims to give its full attention to China and the challenges it faces there. In short, US favours a multilateral confinement approach, as introduced by Obama, with the difference that Biden is protective of Israel and Saudi Arabia. The ideal scenario from a US point of view is that the balance of power between the four big Middle Eastern powers, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, will keep US interests protected. 

The ongoing actions against trade unionists and the political opposition, a feature of the Islamic regime for over 40 years, are leading to increasing resistance and protests, as the corrupt practices and economic incompetence of the clergy become more evident.  More than 60% of Iranians live below the poverty line, there is no economic growth and inflation continues to climb.

While the regime makes a show of resistance to US demands in Vienna all indications suggest that the theocratic regime is running out of options.  An agreement behind closed doors with the United States may be all that is left. This is certainly an option that can firmly tie Iran to the global capitalist system.

It may not be the outcome that the US or the Islamic Republic will admit to publicly, but it may yet be a solution both are prepared to live with in the short term.

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