Iran Hardliners careful On Vienna Nuclear Talks

Nearly five months after hardliner Ebrahim Raisi was elected president of Iran, the Islamic republic and western powers have finally agreed a date on which to begin again stalled talks in Vienna about reviving the nuclear deal.

But days after last week’s announcement of the November 29 talks, Iranian officials voiced serious doubts that negotiations with representatives from the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China over a deal that US president Donald Trump abandoned in 2018 would deliver much.

While US and European officials say they were close to reaching agreement with Raisi’s moderate predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, the hardliners that now rule Tehran have made clear that they do not expect much progress.

“Holding nuclear talks is not our top priority as Iran’s new strategy is not to count on the JCPOA [nuclear deal] any more and not to invest in something that has failed once,” a regime insider close to hardliners said.

“The other side will come to the talks and tell Iran ‘you are a bad boy’. Iran, which is committed to diplomacy and negotiations, will calmly respond by putting its wish list on the table, which the US will probably find to be too costly and unacceptable.”

Under the 2015 deal, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear activities in return for the lifting of international sanctions. Trump then accused Iran of violating the spirit of the deal by being “the leading state sponsor of terror” and pursuing an ambitious ballistic missile programme. He imposed crippling sanctions on the country, which keep in place.

The new Iranian president believes that the country’s economy can thrive, already with sanctions, by boosting domestic production and boosting trade relationships with neighbouring countries. And the Islamic regime, which has expanded its uranium enrichment activities after the US reimposed sanctions, is not convinced by US President Joe Biden’s promises that Washington will return to the deal provided Iran also returns to complete compliance.

With Iran concerned about a possible return of Trump to strength in the 2024 US election, Iranian authorities have asked for a “guarantee” from Biden that a future US government will not abandon the agreement.

Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has also suggested the US could release $10bn of Iran’s money frozen in overseas edges as a goodwill gesture and a first step, conditions that the republic may put forward in this month’s talks.

Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has suggested the US could release $10bn of Iran’s money frozen in overseas edges as a goodwill gesture © Kremlin/dpa

“The US president, who has not much authority, is not ready to give guarantees,” Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s top security official, said last Wednesday. “If the current situation does not change, the consequence of [November] talks is clear from now.”

Hardliners question Biden’s ability to follow by. “Biden is ineffective and cannot provide domestically to strike a deal with Iran,” said the insider. “Can he release Iran’s money with so much opposition [to Iran] in the Congress and Senate? The answer is No.”

In past rounds, the EU has chaired Joint Commission meetings in the basement of a luxury hotel in Vienna and led shuttle diplomacy between Iranian envoys and a US delegation in a nearby hotel. This is doubtful to change. Washington’s special envoy on Iran, Rob Malley, will go to Vienna for the talks, but he is not expected to participate directly in them.

“Iran will negotiate with the US only if we see a real change of approach,” a second Iranian insider additional. “But considering all the political obstacles in Iran and the US, no talks with the US and no deal are foreseen for the foreseeable future.”

The EU is also careful about the possible for substantial breakthroughs. But bloc officials stress that simply securing a commitment to restart talks is already an achievement. “We’re not talking about talking any more, and that is a good thing,” said a senior EU diplomat. “We will truly be back around the table.”

In a sign of how tough the talks might be, France, the UK and Germany — alongside the US — last month blamed Iran for rapidly advancing its nuclear programme and restricting monitoring efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency that are “jeopardiz[ing] the possibility of a return to the JCPOA”.

Progress, the four countries said, “will only be possible if Iran changes course . . . That is the only sure way to avoid a dangerous escalation, which is not in any country’s interest.”

Ali Vaez, Iran director at the International Crisis Group, said there was a risk the new Iranian team led by deputy foreign minister Ali Bagheri Kani would focus on historical grievances instead of making real progress on remarkable a deal.

“I don’t think anybody wants to pull the plug on these negotiations prematurely. But . . . if Iran’s position is absolutely intransigent, then there’s no point in wasting time because of the speed with which Iran’s nuclear programme is growing by the day,” said Vaez.

Western analysts warn that hope for concluding a deal will decrease if talks drag out into the new year. Ned Price, spokesperson for the US Department of State, said on Wednesday last week the US nevertheless believed it remained possible “to quickly reach and implement an understanding on a mutual return to compliance with the [2015 nuclear pact]”, but that at some point, Iran’s advancements would make returning to the deal “not worth it as a proposition for United States and our partners”.

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