Fragile Circumstances of Vienna Talks, Roles and Players

Based on media reports in the United States and other Western countries, there does not seem to be a lot of optimism surrounding the talks and many questions remain. Which side would initiate the implementation of the agreement? Since the United States withdrew from the agreement and reimposed sanctions, Iranian logic dictated that it would first rejoin the agreement and lift sanctions through an executive order. However, the Biden administration has insisted that Iran scale back its nuclear activities before sanctions are lifted.

In previous rounds, some parties and observers suggested simultaneous and verifiable compliance on both sides. How could the Biden administration guarantee the United States would remain in a deal beyond three or seven years, assuming a Republican administration opposed to the deal came into office and without receiving Congressional approval? The latter seems unlikely given the narrow majority of the Democrats and the persistent infighting and gridlock that has plagued them.

US domestic competition partially, if not largely, explains the Biden administration’s decision not to sign an executive order to rejoin the JCPOA, lift sanctions, and offer substantial concessions to Iran during the previous rounds of negotiation. With low approval ratings and before upcoming congressional and presidential elections, the administration lacks the political capital to adopt these measures due to foreign and domestic issues, including the Afghanistan withdrawal, pandemic persistence, economic adversity, legislative gridlock, and political polarization.

Apart from the economic difficulties the sanctions have created for Iran, what value does it see in a potential deal if the United States ostensibly cannot offer a long-term guarantee and if Iran continues to rely more on Russia and China for military and economic support? Even if Iran were to scale back its nuclear activities, how would the parties address the knowledge it has acquired during the past several years? Could the negotiations make meaningful progress if the talks between the United States and Iran have remained indirect? If an agreement were to be reached, would it represent the first step toward a regional security framework that reduces tensions between Iran and other states and addresses their military activities, capabilities, and concerns?

Some scholars and analysts have pointed out the merits of a “less for less” initiative as an incremental step toward buying time for a more comprehensive and sustainable agreement. Such an initiative could be based on the sanctions exemptions for humanitarian goods that already exist and on the provisional version of the JCPOA that offered limited sanctions relief in exchange for measured nuclear rollbacks. In the process, largely unimplemented mechanisms like SHTA and INSTEX could be leveraged. However, concerns have existed among the parties and others that an interim agreement would become permanent and leave substantial economic sanctions and nuclear capabilities in place in the long run.

Under such fragile circumstances threatening any possible agreement, how constructive role can Europe play? Basically, Europe can institute mechanisms to help bypass sanctions, issue statements supporting the JCPOA, and serve as a constructive intermediary between the United States and Iran, especially if talks remain indirect. However, European governments, companies, and banks will not significantly invest in Iran so long as sanctions remain in place.

If the JCPOA remains on life support or is officially dead, the best scenario one could perhaps hope for is a continuation of low-intensity conflict between the United States, Iran, and their allies and partners without a major escalation or conflagration, as well as a resumption of bilateral talks between Iran and other states, particularly those in the Persian Gulf, with support from the United States and others, to manage and mitigate regional tensions. Some scholars and analysts are skeptical that a comprehensive and meaningful security framework in the region could be established without the JCPOA.  

Israel opposes any agreement with Iran in order to contain it militarily and economically, and prevent it from pursuing détente and rapprochement with the United States. With limited political capital and influential domestic interests, the Biden administration has taken Israel’s message seriously and attempted to assuage its concerns about a potential agreement. At the same time, leading up to the most recent round of negotiations, disagreements between the United States and Israel over such an agreement boiled over and spilled out into the public.

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