Representatives of the European Union, Iran and others attend the Iran nuclear talks at the Grand Hotel in Vienna, Austria, on April 6, 2021. Photo: AFP/EU Delegation in Vienna/Anadolu Agency

After dragging their feet on how to kick off the elusive process of resurrecting the moribund Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iranian government and the Biden administration are now involved in a fresh round of diplomatic efforts to sew up the full compliance of all parties with the deal terms.

The Austrian capital Vienna is hosting delegations from Iran and six world powers, moderated by the European Union, where shuttle diplomacy and painstaking negotiations to revive the debilitated Iran deal started on Tuesday and are expected to continue until Friday.

Iran, the trio of France, Germany and the United Kingdom, as well as China and Russia, meet at the Grand Hotel Vienna. The US representatives, headed by the State Department’s Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, convene in a nearby hotel, and the Europeans commute between the two residences, exchanging messages for Iranians and Americans so the two arch-foes don’t encounter each other head-on.

While the Americans have been open to unmediated talks with Iran since Joe Biden came to office, there has been acerbic opposition to engagement with the United States in Tehran, particularly on the side of the hardline-dominated parliament, and the Rouhani administration eventually caved in to no talks with the Americans, only agreeing to the EU diplomats functioning as intermediaries.

This is the first time since the beginning of President Joe Biden’s tenure that talks on the regeneration of the JCPOA are being held at a senior level in person. The Vienna talks were preceded by a virtual JCPOA Joint Commission session on April 2 that excluded the United States, presently a non-party to the deal.

Austrian police guard the entrance of the Grand Hotel during the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria, on April 6, 2021. Photo: AFP/Askin Kiyagan/Anadolu Agency

‘An initial success’

Before that, Iran and the US were locking horns in a dispute for nearly three months over who takes the first step in embracing full JCPOA compliance. That impasse was resolved with the unexpected announcement that Tehran and Washington were geared up for indirect talks.

Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian representative in the talks, called the Tuesday meeting of the JCPOA joint commission constructive and “an initial success.” Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, who is at the helm of the Iranian squad, also hailed the first day of talks as positive.

But in more extensive interviews he granted to the Iranian media on the sidelines of the discussions, Araghchi lifted the veil on some frictions with the United States which may end up torpedoing the entire diplomatic démarche.

Reacting to an interview the US envoy Robert Malley did with NPR’s Steve Inskeep which was aired on Tuesday, in which he said Iran’s demand that the US annuls all sanctions before it reverses its contraventions of the deal was a non-starter showing Tehran’s lack of determination, Araghchi intoned the US was not serious about the talks.

The Iranian deputy FM told the state-run Press TV: “We only go back to full compliance when the US has lifted all sanctions imposed, re-imposed or relabeled after January 2017 and [it] has [been] verified by the Islamic Republic of Iran … I have come here to do business, but I doubt there is a same seriousness in the other side.”

Iran has also reportedly turned down an offer by the US to allow US$1 billion of its assets blocked in South Korea to be unfrozen in exchange for Tehran suspending 20% uranium enrichment.

Yet while a breakthrough that can give a new lease of life to the JCPOA appears to be in limbo three years after Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal created a morass of global proportions and drove a wedge between Washington and its European allies, what the diplomats and media have narrated of the Tuesday talks offer a glimmer of hope about a compromise being in the making.

Silent agreement

Deputy Secretary-General of the European External Action Service Enrique Mora tweeted that “there’s unity and ambition for a joint diplomatic process” and two working groups, one dedicated to sanctions lifting and one on nuclear implementation have been set up, and they’ll further the work that needs to be done so that an understanding is achieved.

Iran and the US seem to have come to a silent agreement that reanimating the JCPOA is their best bet in safeguarding their national interests.

For Iran, the status quo is clearly untenable and further economic strangulation at the time of a global pandemic cannot be withstood, so the need for sanctions relief is exigent and immediate. For the US, condoning Iran’s race to new nuclear benchmarks, including high-purity uranium enrichment, resonates with the threat of nuclear non-proliferation and a tricky arms race in the Middle East.

The JCPOA has its own defects, and the next Iranian administration, to be ushered in following the June presidential election, will most probably be dominated by anti-West radicals who view the agreement skeptically. But the successful recovery of the enervated UN-endorsed accord can potentially open the door to future Iran-US fence-mending.

Also, the US, under a new president who ran on a campaign of upholding multilateralism and rebuilding alienated alliances, may have higher stakes in diluting its four-decade-old enmity with Iran, while China is poised to become the Islamic Republic’s “strategic partner” following a much-hyped 25-year cooperation agreement that is expected to cement Beijing’s regional foothold in the Middle East and West Asia.

The Iran-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement, signed on March 27 in Tehran following months of drafting and spadework, received blockbuster media coverage and continues to be a topic of interest for policymakers, academicians and journalists.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi after signing an agreement in Tehran on March 27, 2021. Photo: AFP

‘Chinese imperialism’

The Tehran and Beijing governments have agreed not to disclose the details of the deal, and this has stoked speculation that there are significant concessions involved. In Iran, particularly, people have reacted with sensitivity, and responses on social media have been furious, with many protesting that the Iranian authorities have “sold out” the country to China and acquiesced to the yoke of “Chinese imperialism.”

Rumors have been whispered in the public sphere that the Iranian government has consented to give away the sovereignty of a number of Persian Gulf islands – including the cherished luxury resort Kish Island – to China, while 5,000 Chinese military and security troops would be stationed across Iran to protect Chinese projects. The Iranian foreign ministry has rejected the conjectures.

Iranian hardliners who are by definition suspicious to any sort of connection with the outside world and denigrate foreign policy and diplomacy as redundant, however, either saluted the agreement or kept a low profile and didn’t react.

Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the conservative Majlis speaker and a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, said in the opening session of the parliament in the Persian New Year: “The signing of this deal is a warning to the United States to understand that international arrangements are quickly evolving against the US interests and this country is no longer in a position to impose a pattern, plan or agreement on independent countries unilaterally.”

Iranian officials insist the deal encompasses no obligations for the two countries and only ordains a roadmap for bilateral economic, financial, infrastructural, political and security cooperation. They have also ruled out that there are specific numbers or similar particulars about the Chinese government’s investment in Iran or Iran’s petroleum sales to China embedded in the deal.

This is while several sources, including The New York Times, have pointed to a prospective $400 billion Chinese investment in Iran stipulated by the strategic partnership agreement, with others suggesting that China will be entitled to a guarantee of at least 12% off benchmark crude and natural gas prices for imports from Iran.

Figures are aggrandized

If true, the figures mean Iran’s sanctions-paralyzed, insulated economy will be on the path to a phenomenal rehabilitation, whereby foreign investment by China will redeem its derelict infrastructure, housing, roads, transportation and energy sectors from collapse and it will eventually be able to export oil in large quantities, even though at remarkably deflated prices.

Some experts, though, say the figures are aggrandized and the Iran-China deal, though significant, should not be read too much into.

“There have been some exaggerations about the China-Iran deal, most notably the claim that it contains a $400 billion investment agreement, which is false. The deal, according to both a leaked draft and Chinese and Iranian officials, does not contain any set financial targets,” said Lucille Greer, a Schwarzman Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.

“Iran deal has been on the table since 2016, and is in line with their deepening relations. It’s an important moment in their bilateral relationship, but not a departure from the trajectory of Chinese-Iranian ties,” she told Asia Times.

Against the backdrop of China’s similar strategic cooperation agreements with Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, some analysts speculate the burgeoning deal with Iran will change the Middle East into the soft underbelly of the United States’ overseas agenda, giving China the upper hand in the regional calculi while reversing Washington’s fortunes.

“With Beijing’s concurrent advances in its security and economic cooperation with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, the Iran-China strategic partnership agreement strengthens China’s agenda to create a new multilateral architecture in the Middle East whose organizing framework better accommodates Beijing’s rising role while diminishing Washington’s, relegating the United States to being one among several key global actors in the region,” said Professor Michaël Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy.

Ambassador Kazem Gharibabadi, Permanent Representative of Iran to the United Nations Vienna Office, arrives to attend the Iran nuclear resume talks at the Grand Hotel in Vienna on April 6, 2021. Photo: AFP/Askin Kiyagan/Anadolu Agency

Opportunities missed

It is not unrealistic to assume the Iran-China deal has spurred the US and Europe to reflect on the opportunities that will be missed if Iran’s untapped economic potentials are monopolized and devoured by China.

So, the momentum that has galvanized the JCPOA parties to once again invest in talks to hammer out a panacea for saving the deal can be partially attributed to the Sino-Iranian initiative.

Guy Burton, an adjunct professor of international relations at Vesalius College, Brussels, says it is possible to trace links between the Iran-China agreement and the fresh JCPOA negotiations underway in Vienna: “The part of the Iranian regime that has emphasized ties to China is also sending a signal to the West, both Europe and the US, that they have options if they don’t end sanctions or start full trade and exchange with them.

“Iran’s leaders need capital and they would like it from everywhere. Western finance is welcome. So, I can also see them using the case of China as a way to indicate that they are open for business and that foreign businesses shouldn’t be worried about working in Iran.”