Mixed messages following recent talks between European and Iranian negotiators on the future of the Iranian nuclear program underline the challenges associated with efforts to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Europeans have been keen to keep expectations low following yet another week of slow progress. Meanwhile, the Iranians insist that they are prepared to show “heroic flexibility” in trying to reach agreement. Regional observers remain suspicious, however, about Iran’s real intentions, with many looking at developments in Yemen and a recently launched pact between Iran and China as further evidence of Iran’s attempts to dictate its will in the region.
Reflecting on a recently concluded round of talks, Iranian officials pushed back against the characterization that they were at a stalemate. According to a Tehran Times report, Iranians insist that the talks are moving forward despite indications by British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who “struck a note of pessimism at a time when even Western diplomatic sources are convinced that the talks are on the right track. She warned about a perilous ‘impasse’ at the talks. ... This wasn’t the first time the British foreign secretary made unconstructive remarks that go against the general atmosphere of the talks. ... As regards the impasse, the talks are going on, and the slow pace is natural given the depth and scope of the issues under discussion. Over the past few days, the talks even made further progress in terms of filling some of the brackets in the draft agreement. Therefore, the British allegation that the talks are heading toward a stalemate is far from reality and is seen by some observers as a move to pressurize Iran into making more concessions in Vienna.”
Writing for Al Ahram, Manal Lotfy paints a picture of an Iranian delegation intent on playing a constructive role in the talks, pointing to statements by Khamenei to that effect: “The odds that Iran and the West are on the cusp of a breakthrough in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme increased this week after a change in tone by senior Iranian officials led by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Khamenei, the ultimate decision-maker on issues of national security, appeared to give his support for the negotiations to continue despite differences between Tehran and the Western powers. ... In a sign that he may be ready to make concessions in order to help the negotiations to succeed, he talked about ‘heroic flexibility’ in the negotiations. Khamenei’s message appears to be directed at the Iranian public and at the countries negotiating with Tehran.”
For Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, Khamenei’s signal of greater flexibility shows that, while it is true the talks are at a critical juncture, the blame for the slow pace lies elsewhere. In an op-ed for Khaleej Times, Salehi-Isfahani argues, “Iran’s need for respite from sanctions is equally urgent, because its new hardline President, Ebrahim Raisi, must deliver on his promise of economic growth. ... In the absence of new revenue from oil exports, his administration will not be able to jump-start the economy without pushing inflation higher. Iranians, whose living standards have declined to the level of 20 years ago, are thus nervously waiting for good news from Vienna. ... Against this backdrop, the recent statement by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that negotiating with the enemy does not amount to surrender may be just the signal that Iranian nuclear negotiators need to reach a deal in the few weeks left to play ball before the final whistle.”
That is not an assessment shared by others who, as this op-ed by The National’s defense and foreign-affairs columnist Con Coughlin points out, see Iran’s actions in the region as the best proof of the country’s determination to use the threat of regional destabilization, if needed, to exert the greatest amount of pressure possible: “The recent upsurge in attacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels against civilian targets in the UAE inevitably raises questions about the seriousness of Tehran’s commitment to talks currently taking place in Vienna over its nuclear programme.... Indeed, with Iran expected to reach the enrichment threshold to produce weapons-grade material in the next few weeks, there is a general acceptance that, if a deal is not forthcoming soon, then the negotiations will collapse, with all the implications that are likely to happen for security in the Gulf region. ... With the nuclear negotiations therefore reaching a critical juncture, Gulf security officials believe many of the attacks being carried out by Houthi rebels in Yemen, which have received significant military backing from Iran, can be linked to the nuclear talks, and are a blatant attempt by Tehran to pressure the West into making concessions at the Vienna talks.”
This point is further elaborated by Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian American political scientist, who in an op-ed for Arab News asserts that the recent entry into force of a comprehensive agreement between Iran and China is yet more proof that Iran’s threat in the region is on the rise: “The Iranian regime has been improving its ties with China on several fronts, which could pose a threat to the region. ... China and Iran announced, in January 2022, the launch of the implementation of a comprehensive cooperation plan between the two nations. ... This will assist the Iranian regime in skirting US sanctions, gaining access to funds, empowering its militia and terror groups in the region and continuing to advance its nuclear program. Iran has also become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.... As Iran increasingly benefits from China economically, it will have less incentive to change its destructive behavior in the region or yield to Washington’s pressure. ... In summary, the Iranian regime’s growing ties with China on military, strategic and economic issues pose a grave and significant threat to the Middle East.”
In light of these developments, the Israelis are also concerned about what the Biden administration may be willing to give up in return for a deal, despite the fact that, as Jerusalem Post’s Ruthie Blum concludes, “It was clear from the outset that the nuclear talks in Vienna would turn out to be a farce. Promoted by the administration of US President Joe Biden as a means of returning to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from which former president Donald Trump withdrew in 2018, the move to go back to the literal and figurative table was born of a pipe dream, at best. At worst, it stemmed from cynical disregard for the consequences of a hegemonic regime in Tehran armed with weapons of mass destruction. ... [W]atching America genuflect rather than call the shots is enough for [Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi] to conclude that Iran is on a sure path to sanctions-relief and nuclear warheads. From Tehran’s point of view, the Vienna gatherings are proving to be a great success.”
Finally, some are demanding that the U.S. begin to take the security risks posed by Iran seriously and demand that the talks focus not only on the nuclear program but also on Iran’s role in the region. That is the view held by Tariq Al-Homayed, a Saudi journalist and writer, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, who advises “Washington and the West not to take the region’s security lightly. Indeed, our countries’ security and stability should be taken very seriously, and doing so implies treating all forms of terrorism, be it Sunni or Shiite, the same way. ... We ask that Iran not be negotiated with leniently and that the negotiations not be limited to questions of nuclear enrichment. Instead, these negotiations should prevent Iran from financing and arming terrorism and militias in the region. Additionally, serious coordination is needed to push back against Iran’s arms in the region, as without a carrot and stick, you cannot have serious negotiations. ... All states should act like states, especially those of the size and strength of the United States!”