Lloyd Austin seeks to reassure Middle East allies that President Biden’s administration is committed to the region.
Washington, DC – Indirect negotiations between Iran and the United States to revive the nuclear deal are set to restart next week after a lengthy pause that put prospects of restoring the landmark accord in doubt.
While a breakthrough is not expected, analysts have said that the talks set to begin in Vienna on November 29 will shed light on how Tehran will approach diplomacy under conservative President Ebrahim Raisi, whose government has upped Iranian demands before a return to the deal.
“We’re going to find out how different these [Iranian] hardliners are from previous hardliners; we’re going to find out if they’re going to be a little softer,” said Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-American journalist and analyst.
“And we’re also going to find out if the Americans have really realised that they missed an opportunity, and that they should change their position to some extent.”
Proponents of the deal, including Mortazavi, have criticised US President Joe Biden for not moving with urgency to restore the agreement in the first months of his administration, when a more moderate Iranian government headed by former President Hassan Rouhani was in charge.
Six rounds of talks in Vienna between April and June failed to forge a path back into the agreement. “That golden window of opportunity was short, and the Biden team completely missed it,” Mortazavi told Al Jazeera.
With conservatives in charge in Tehran, Iran gaining difficult-to-reverse nuclear expertise and Biden seemingly unwilling to unilaterally ease sanctions, Mortazavi said she is “cautiously pessimistic” about the talks’ chances of success.
But the fact that Iran has agreed to return to the negotiating table in the Austrian capital is a welcome sign for diplomacy, experts said.
Progressive groups have called on Biden to pursue “goodwill gestures” towards Iran in advance of the talks, such as unfreezing for humanitarian purposes some of the Iranian assets that are held under American sanctions.
Yet despite branding former President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran as a failure, the Biden administration has continued to enforce Trump-era sanctions while imposing new ones of its own.
Trump nixed the multilateral nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018. Biden had pledged to restore it, stressing that diplomacy is the best option to contain Iran’s nuclear programme.
Meanwhile, Iran has escalated its nuclear programme, which was curbed by the pact. It is enriching uranium at 60 percent versus the 3.67 percent permitted by the deal. It is also using more advanced centrifuges.
Tehran maintains that its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes, but US officials warn that recent advances in the Iranian nuclear programme have significantly reduced the “breakout time” that Iran needs to amass enough material for a nuclear weapon.
Iranian officials have insisted that their country’s violations of the JCPOA are in response to American sanctions and that Iran is still a party to the agreement, unlike the US. They have said Washington, as the side that abandoned the pact, should lift all sanctions.
“Until the violating and non-compliant party to the deal does not demonstrate, in practice, its commitment to the JCPOA, there is no reason for Iran to abandon its rights and entitlements guaranteed by the deal,” Ali Bagheri Kani, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, who will lead the Iranian negotiating team in Vienna, told Al Jazeera earlier this week.
Broader US diplomacy
Sina Azodi, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank, also said Biden “wasted a golden opportunity” by not starting the negotiations earlier – but finding a workable agreement is still possible.
He suggested working towards an interim agreement that would result in easing some US sanctions and pausing Iran’s nuclear advances to buy time for more comprehensive negotiations. However, one of the challenges will be addressing the nuclear know-how Iran has acquired.
“You cannot really destroy the knowledge and the experience that the Iranians have already gained,” Azodi told Al Jazeera. “Whether the US would be OK with it, I’m not sure.”
US and Israeli officials have sounded the alarm about the nuclear escalation. Israel, which opposes the JCPOA, has threatened “to act” against Iran at any moment. Biden and his top aides have also touted “other options” against Iran if diplomacy fails.
The US’s envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, told National Public Radio (NPR) this week that the US is looking at “other efforts – diplomatic and otherwise” if the Iranians choose not to return to the JCPOA. “If they start getting too close, too close for comfort, then, of course, we will not be prepared to sit idly by,” he said.
But the Biden administration remains active on the diplomatic front.
The US is heading to Vienna after its Arab partners in the Gulf region, during a visit by Malley to the region last week, offered public support for American efforts to restore the JCPOA. Washington’s Gulf allies, particularly Riyadh, previously stood in open opposition to the deal.
In a joint statement on November 17, the US and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s working group on Iran said a return to full compliance with the deal “would help pave the way for inclusive diplomatic efforts to address all issues that are necessary to ensure sustainable safety, security and prosperity in the region”.
Ryan Costello, policy director at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a Washington-based group that advocates for diplomacy with Iran, called the statement “significant”.
“Now, we’ve tested the alternative to the JCPOA – max pressure – and it really deteriorated security in the region, led to attacks on oil tankers, and didn’t benefit anybody. And as Trump demonstrated, the US isn’t necessarily going to fight [the Gulf nations’] battles for them,” Costello told Al Jazeera.
The Biden administration also has sought to align its position with the three European signatories of the deal, known as the E3 – Germany, the UK and France. Malley also held talks with Russian and Chinese diplomats last week.
“Having the Saudis and Emiratis at least not opposing it, not trying to undermine the negotiations, I think it’s a positive step,” Azodi said.
US domestic challenges
Still, the resumption of the Vienna talks comes at a politically fraught moment for Biden domestically.
The administration is urging Congress to pass an ambitious $1.75 trillion social spending plan ahead of crucial mid-term elections a year from now, while also dealing with rising inflation and an uptick in COVID-19 infections as the world struggles to end the pandemic.
On foreign policy, Biden is still dealing with the fallout from the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan that saw some Republicans call for his resignation. And while the JCPOA still enjoys support from the American public, according to public opinion polls, some of the top Democrats in Congress appear sceptical about the deal and Republicans are almost unanimous opposed to it.
The deal can be restored through executive action, but it requires political capital from the president, whose Democratic Party has thin majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives. Any US concessions to Iran will likely generate criticism at home.
Costello said persisting domestic issues and the close margins in Congress “limits the attention for international affairs”, making it difficult for the president to push through major foreign policy initiatives that are contentious.
“I think that’s another factor that kind of slowed things up in the first half of this year on re-engaging with Iran,” he said.