Prospect of the Vienna Talks

All parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agree that negotiations need to be reconvened.  Discussions about resuming the treaty began in April between Iranian, EU officials, and other treaty country participants–China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom, but came to a halt in June.  Iran’s new President Ebrahim Raisi then approved resuming the current talks in Vienna.

I think the U.S. is serious about resuming the talks.  The U.S. State Department declared on 3 November, “We believe it remains possible to quickly reach and implement an understanding on a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA by closing the relatively small number of issues that remained outstanding.”

The Biden administration is different than the Trump administration.  Joe Biden was the vice president under President Barak Obama who championed the JCPOA.  On May 22 2015, Obama signed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 into law.  Both the US Senate and the House of Representatives supported the treaty.  Trump rejected Obama’s treaty and called for provisions that could only make it unacceptable for Iran.  Iran’s chief negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri, will act to ensure that Iran’s interests are advanced.

Some critics say the nuclear dispute is not resolvable through technical discussions, and indeed this is a political issue that is rooted in distrust between the U.S. and Iran. In my view and as a famous Russian proverb proclaims that one should “trust, but verify.”  Treaties traditionally provide for monitoring and surveillance to ensure compliance.  This should be expected of any final version of the treaty.  In 2016, the Obama White House stated, “The International Atomic Energy Agency verified that Iran has completed the necessary steps under the Iran deal that will ensure Iran’s nuclear program is and remains exclusively peaceful.”     

The EU’s role in the JCPOA through its envoy, Enrique Mora, is to serve as a chair for the negotiations is to serve a meeting chair for the meetings that begin in November.  In this role, Mora can serve as an “honest broker” between parties.  The EU is not realistically expected to or responsible for ensuring the treaty’s successful signing and enforcement.  More important, in opposition to the Trump administration, in 2018 the European Commission declared US sanctions against Iran illegal in Europe. The Commission also instructed the European Investment Bank to assist European companies in investing in Iran. 

One great challenge facing the JCPOA is the political divisions in the U.S. between Democratic President Biden and a deeply divided US Senate, which must approve any treaty.  Senate Republicans and some Democrats are highly skeptical about renewing the treaty.  Biden would have to end many of Trump’s sanctions against Iran to gain Iranian support for the treaty, but doing so will likely alienate much of the Senate.  Another great challenge facing the JCPOA is Iran’s distrust of the U.S. after the Trump presidency.  How President Raisi evaluates what Biden is willing to offer in a new treaty will also determine JCPOA’s fate.       

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