The indirect talks between Iran and several other countries to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran’s nuclear deal, have begun in Vienna after a five-month hiatus. However, the negotiators involved in the talks have little optimism.

Iran has made what is being correctly termed as “maximalist demands” and has denied access to key nuclear sites to the United Nations watchdog.

While much has changed since the last meeting, several things remain the same: Tehran is digging in its heels and demanding all sanctions by the United States be removed; the U.S. is threatening to walk away from the talks; and the Israelis are threatening to use military force to take out the Iranian nuclear facilities

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on Monday that there is “no way” to return to the 2015 JCPOA unless all American economic sanctions are lifted. 

The U.S. “still fails to properly understand the fact that there is no way to return to the JCPOA without the verifiable and effective lifting of all sanctions imposed on the Iranian nation after the US departure,” he said.

“The main objective of the upcoming talks should be the full and effective implementation of the JCPOA and the pursuit of the goal of normalization of trade relations and economic cooperation with Iran,” Amir-Abdollahian added. However, many of the sanctions that he mentioned, and which were imposed by the Trump administration, have nothing to do with the Iranian nuclear program and are unlikely to be lifted. 

Ali Bagheri, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, said that Iran demanded a “guarantee by American not to impose new sanctions” or not re-impose previously lifted sanctions.

The U.S. has repeatedly stated that sanctions will not be lifted until the Iranians comply with the JCPOA. Therein lies the impasse facing the negotiators. 


An Already Nullified Agreement?

Iranian nuclear facility Natanz
The Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz that was damaged by a fire that some said was a cyberattack by Israel. (File photo)

Six rounds of indirect negotiations between April and June produced nothing. Iran then elected a new hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi. While Raisi has stated that he supports a return to the JCPOA, he insists that the U.S. must remove all sanctions before Iran agrees to reverse its nuclear activity to within civilian limits. 

Iran has for years insisted that it had no intention of producing nuclear weapons and that its nuclear program was strictly for peaceful purposes. Iran insists that its enrichment of uranium to 60 percent, which is one step away from weapons-grade uranium, and its possession of uranium metal, which has no civilian application, is strictly in response to the U.S. withdrawing from the JCPOA. The U.S. withdrew from the agreement in 2018 under the Trump administration. 

In violation of the JCPOA, Iran now uses advanced centrifuges and its nuclear stockpile far exceeds the amount specified by the agreement.

The international media has largely gone along with the Iranian version. However, the Israelis insist that Iran never intended to comply with the JCPOA. Israel also argues that the agreement’s terms would never stop Iran from possessing or producing nuclear weapons but only delay it for a few years. 


Diplomatic Poker

Israel’s Mossad pulled off an intelligence coup by sneaking into Iran and stealing its backup nuclear files. These clearly showed that Iran has not stopped in its quest to produce a nuclear weapon. Israel insists that unless a stricter deal is put in place, it will act unilaterally with military force to take out the Iranian nuclear facility. 

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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Monday that Iran was seeking “to end sanctions in exchange for almost nothing,” and added that “Iran deserves no rewards, no bargain deals and no sanctions relief in return for their brutality.” 

Bennett then urged world powers not to give in to Iran’s “nuclear blackmail.”

The resumption of talks has been further hampered by developments between Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog. Last week, Iran refused to allow IAEA monitors access to its Karaj centrifuge-component manufacturing facility. It has resumed production at the facility without IAEA monitoring.

This aggressive and more hard-line stance of Tehran is seen in some circles as reflecting confidence: Tehran senses that Washington is not willing to pressure it, and wants to exploit the Biden administration’s open insistence to return to the JCPOA, which it views as weakness.

President Donald Trump announces that the United States is withdrawing from the JCPOA in 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

However, Washington knows that the Iranian economy is in shambles. Without sanctions relief that isn’t going to change, despite Raisi’s rosy predictions that the economy can be resurrected without sanctions relief. Washington negotiators will no doubt use that as a bargaining chip.

Further complicating matters is that China, one of the countries involved in the JCPOA, is buying vast quantities of Iranian oil, which flies in the face of U.S. sanctions. Politico posted that the U.S. may be looking for an interim plan until a return to the JCPOA can be reached. 

The European negotiators are sounding much more optimistic than their American or Iranian counterparts. Enrique Mora, the EU diplomat heading up the negotiations said on Monday that success can be achieved. 

“I feel positive that we can be doing important things for the next weeks,” Mora said.