Dilemmas of the Vienna Talks

The US seems to sway from one complexity to the other. The recent announcement of an extended withdrawal from a 20-year campaign against the Taliban was immediately followed by another ticking clock situation. The negotiations with Iran to revive the Nuclear Deal 2015. While the Vienna talks don’t directly involve the diplomats of the United States due to a keen refusal by the representation of the Iranian diplomacy, the mediation formed by the remaining parties of the JCPOA accord: China, Russia, France, Germany, UK, along with the European Union (EU), are all striving to reach an agreement. However, with continuous escalation by regional allies of the United States vis-à-vis the state of Israel, the agreement gets more trimmed as Iran amps up the march towards a nuclear weapon: the worst fear of global and regional powers.

The US exited the JCPOA agreement in 2018 under the premiership of President Donald Trump. While his ambitions were berated by the remaining members of the accord, the sanctions imposed curbed the raging influence of Iran in the Middle East. A few instances of the blockades included freezing the bank accounts of Iran-based companies, limiting the oil exports of Iran to a fraction of its capabilities before imposing a deadlock on any exports at all. While the food and medical supplies were relieved from the sanctions, that ambit was already exempted under the Human Rights Charter of the United Nations (UN).

The inane withdrawal, however, fuelled the ambitions of the right-wing faction in Iran. In response to the US withdrawal, Iran pushed up its Uranium enrichment from a commissioned 3.97% to a colossal 20% purity. Even higher levels of enrichment were achieved at some of the advanced centrifuges in the facilities of Natanz and Arak. While the sanctions kept pilling up, not only from the United States but from the EU as well, Iran managed to prevail its proxy presence in the adjoining countries: controlling swathes of Lebanon by backing the dominant militant group ‘Hezbollah’, and supporting the rebels in the fields of Iraq and Syria. With expanding nuclear capabilities and no agreement binding Iran to dormancy, the US faced the brunt of an early withdrawal.

The key connotation of the US exit in 2018 was the aggressive stance of the Republican party, peddled by President Donald Trump. The ideology, like it was in regards to North Korea and China, was to take the offensive and press hard until the party has no choice but to compromise. Unlike the impasse with North Korea or China, however, Iran did retaliate in equal measure which was not expected by the US administration. To add oil to the fire, a targeted attack killing Irani General Qassim Suleimani, at the whims of President Trump, snapped all hopes of an equilibrium. While the regional powers continued to negotiate with Iran through International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), exempting sanctions to allow inspections of its nuclear sites, the revenge call from the Irani Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, threatened the regional stability and prospected a high-scale warfare.

While the change of regime in the echelons of the US congress has shifted the offense to a more collusive focus, the regional allies of the United States are not on board with a renewed nuclear deal. One of the biggest regional and ideological rivals to Iran, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, opposes the prospect of going back to the original facets of the JCPOA accord signed in 2016. Their ambition corresponds with the vantage point of the Republicans’, pushing for an expansive agreement incorporating limits to Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional warmongering through rebels along with the nuclear protocol. With a less friendly US at its side, the Kingdom seeks a safeguard against an Iranian retaliation whilst being optimistic to curb Iran in its regional supremacy before it stands as a threat hard to avoid.

The state of Israel, however, has been rather less complacent with the developments. The recent breakdown at the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran was tagged as ‘Nuclear Terrorism’ by the head of Iran’s civilian nuclear programme. While Israel never explicitly accepted the responsibility of the alleged sabotage, this was not the first attempt to bring down the nuclear operations in Iran, but the latest in the decades laced with a series of schemes and assassinations paved by Israel. A major cyberattack was launched against Iran in the early 2000s to devastate the advanced centrifuges. A recent attack was marked at the Natanz site in 2020 that caused immense damage to the development of some of the most sophisticated centrifuges of Iran. Since 2007, a total of 7 military officials and nuclear scientists have been assassinated in Iran through covert targeted operations. These attacks are widely attributed to a joint effort of the United States and Israel. The Israeli President, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been notoriously against Iran’s nuclear capabilities and has time and time again claimed to bring down the agenda at any cost, quoting: “I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability to carry out its genocidal goal of eliminating Israel.”The brazen operations on highly confidential sites and an intricate network of Mossad prospering within Iran gives weight to these claims. However, with continual attacks and a stone-etched vow to sabotage Iran’s nuclear vision by hook or by crook, Israel plays a foe rather than an ally to the US at present.

Now as the Vienna talks are in their final stages: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani claiming a 70% completion of thorough negotiations, a single misstep could turn the progress to dust. The signs could be gauged already as the Natanz attack pushed Iran to enrich its Uranium levels to a fearsome 60% purity. Given the analysis of the IAEA committees inspecting Iran’s nuclear facilities, it’s only a matter of months before Iran could transfuse its efforts towards a legitimate nuclear nuke. While Iran has never claimed to be in pursuit of a Nuclear weapon, continual regional retaliation coupled with a switch of the Iranian regime to hardliners in the forthcoming months, the prospect is not hard to envision.

Simply put, sanction relief is all that is demanded in exchange for a compliant return. Sanctions that were unjustified after a meaningless withdrawal. Amidst continual regional hostility, diplomatic pressure in the benches of US congress, and the perpetual clock ticking end to Rouhani’s regime, a safe bet would be to lift the sanctions and bring Iran back to the deal rather than trying to expand the ambit. So much was made abundantly clear by the Iranian delegation: “Whenever the talks veer toward demanding too much, killing time, or illogical bargaining, negotiations will be stopped. We [Iran] will reach results in a short time if the Americans move within the framework of honesty”.

Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
The author is a political and economic analyst. He focuses on geopolitical policymaking and international affairs. Syed has written extensively on fintech economy, foreign policy, and economic decision making of the Indo-Pacific and Asian region.