Many say the Biden administration's policy on Iran and the JCPOA leaves Tehran with plenty of options to develop its nuclear program. Photo: AFP / Iran's Revolutionary Guard / Sepah News

Negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal, which had come to a halt in June pending a power transition in Tehran, resumed in Vienna on November 29 for the first time in the administration of President Ebrahim Raisi, but after two rounds of intense haggling, the prospects for a breakthrough seem dim.

Talks recommenced this week after a brief respite requested by Iran on Friday, December 24. Interlocutors involved in the delicate horse-trading have bluntly blamed the Islamic Republic for the current gridlock, unimpressed that the new negotiating team appointed by President Raisi has been making demands that breach the scope of the JCPOA as negotiated in 2015.

Iran’s squad in Vienna is led by senior diplomat Ali Bagheri Kani, a hardline ideologue who for several years publicly pilloried the nuclear deal. He accused the Rouhani administration of forsaking the nation’s sovereignty by signing a document that was a one-sided deal without obtaining sufficient guarantees that the other parties would honor their obligations.

This is the same argument that the Trump administration exploited to rescind the deal in May 2018.

The irony, however, is that Bagheri is now tasked with salvaging the very agreement he once sardonically challenged. The hard-core of the establishment, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the diehard anti-Western MPs, influential clerics, seminaries and state media are almost unanimously throwing their weight behind him and his colleagues, insisting the talks he is leading are tailored to retrieve the rights and “dignity” of the nation.

Bagheri refuses to use the term JCPOA in his interviews and public statements, and instead refers to the talks as “negotiations for the removal of the inhumane sanctions.” He keeps repeating in his media engagements that all sanctions on Iran “must be lifted.” 

All the same, the play-on-words does not change the reality that the outcome of any possible settlement would be the restoration of the JCPOA as approved by the UN Security Council, which abolished the sanctions regime against Iran in return for Iran’s verifiable reversal of its nuclear advances.

This is the same accord whose Iranian architects were slandered by the hawks in Tehran as traitors and US spies. 

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi looks on during a campaign rally in the capital Tehran on April 29, 2017. Photo: AFP / Atta Kenare

A lack of transparency

The amplitude of compromises Iran is ready to make is something that almost no official in the Raisi administration has so far broached transparently.

This is doubly important considering the headlong steps the Islamic Republic has taken in recent months to curb the access by the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to its nuclear installations.

There is also the impetuous decision to enrich uranium to 60% purity, which is a level the IAEA says “only countries making bombs” have approached, and its production of uranium metal it had agreed, under the JCPOA, to avoid for 15 years.

While the new hardline administration has avowed it will not be conditioning the national economy on the outcome of the nuclear talks, the plain truth is that the livelihoods of people and their purchasing power are inextricably linked with the factious, tedious nuclear dossier that has been dragging on for some 20 years now. 

The most immediate reaction by the market to the talks foundering was that the value of the US dollar leapfrogged its peak in October and reached an all-time high of 297,800 rials per dollar in the unofficial market as of December 26.

Financial services and news websites have been advised by the government to redact details pertaining to the forex fluctuations and only publish the official rates to pre-empt further social anxiety.

In addition, the Raisi administration, which appears to be suffering from a dearth of experienced technocrats with reliable statecraft qualifications, is finding itself incapable of shielding the national economy and fending off the burden of the sanctions, even by availing itself of frequent crackdowns on imports.

Inflation is on a meteoric rise and the price of food and medicine is going up daily. 

According to the Statistical Center of Iran, some of the most frequently consumed food items, including rice, dairies, red meat, chicken and cooking oil, have recorded price jumps of 55.7%, 75.8%, 62.6%, 63.4% and 78.1% respectively in September compared to the corresponding period last year, and the upswing continues unabated. 

Unscathed by the sanctions that are taking their toll primarily on ordinary citizens, hardliners in the top leadership are relieved that power has been consolidated in the hands of the ultra-conservative forces, and a pliant Raisi will be prepared to implement the agenda of Iran’s military-industrial complex uncritically. 

Hardliners steering talks

With this uniformity they had been yearning for since the moderate Hassan Rouhani was elected president in 2013 and dashed their hopes, now the hardliners are in a position to steer the talks in any direction they wish.

And in case a compromise is achieved, they will be the ones who will take credit for a diplomatic triumph catalyzing the removal of the sanctions and the rejuvenation of a debilitated economy. 

Roxane Farmanfarmaian, director of international studies and global politics at the University of Cambridge Institute for Continuing Education, told Asia Times the uniformity of political forces panning out in the wake of the rise of Raisi could be conducive to an agreement that the establishment can sell to its avid partisans, but there are intra-party frictions that cannot be ignored.

Alluding to various segments of the hardliners who support or oppose the negotiations for different ideological reasons, the UK-based scholar said: “Certainly, the hardline ideological consistency across the major arms of government gives its decision-making weight and credibility. But that doesn’t mean that the conservatives don’t themselves suffer from deep divisions.

“Of course, if the deal is signed, it will mean Raisi’s camp can claim the credit. However, I don’t think it makes it easier for the West and the US to talk to the administration, simply because there is no obvious opposition in play at the moment.

“It is a deeply unpopular administration, which many feel Raisi heads up after a rigged election. Poverty in Iran is growing and if the administration doesn’t get to a deal, the street protests, already high for reasons of climate change and drought, could balloon.”

It is not immediately clear if the current administration is committed to clinching an agreement and making the minimum concessions that the rebirth of the JCPOA are contingent on, or is simply exhausting its options by perfunctorily responding to public pressure for concluding the talks and redeeming a crumbling economy that can no longer weather the tides of sanctions. 

For one thing, the negotiating strategy of the current delegation is alarmingly reminiscent of the modus operandi of Iran under hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Then, the hidebound Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Saeed Jalili presided over the talks from 2007 to 2013 for six inconclusive years and the outcome was the referral of the nuclear file to the UN Security Council, which in turn punished Iran with seven resolutions. 

Bagheri Kani was Iran’s deputy negotiator at that time and is now directly in charge of engagement with the parties to the JCPOA. He is a close associate of Jalili and they concur on many foreign policy strategies.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, left, the IAEA Director-General, with Ali Bagheri Kani, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, during his official visit at the Agency headquarters in Vienna, Austria, on December 2, 2021. Photo: WikiCommons 

Rhetoric not surprising

David Patrikarakos, a British journalist and the author of the critically-acclaimed 2012 book Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State, says the sort of rhetoric the Iranian negotiators have deployed thus far, even though familiar in the history of nuclear talks, is not surprising.

“What is clear is that we are seeing the same style that we saw under Ahmadinejad, which is very much like you start talking tough, saying that there is never going to be any compromise on the red lines, and so on. The pattern in the past was always to start with very tough rhetoric, which is obviously designed for the Iranian domestic audience, and then eventually to come to a deal,” he said.

“Whether the second part is going to happen, we don’t know. But right now, I think it is very much part of the Islamic Republic’s negotiating playbook, especially given that Raisi has just come in. He can obviously not come in and be seen to ‘cave in’ immediately to the P5+1.

“Iran needs sanctions relief badly, even more badly than it did under Rouhani, which it needed badly and which is why Khamenei allowed him to do the deal. One thing I think we’ve all learned since the nuclear crisis kicked off in 2002 is that Iranians are very skillful negotiators and anyone who underestimates them does so at their peril.”

When the Rouhani administration was still in power, different voices in Tehran’s byzantine decision-making machinery vehemently ruled out any talks with the United States, either directly or indirectly, because it was they who violated the deal to begin with, and then compounded the situation by assassinating Iran’s top general Qasem Soleimani, an unforgivable sin. 

Soleimani’s funeral featured angry demonstrators carrying admonishing placards addressed to the Rouhani officials, reading “after Soleimani, we will crush the teeth of anyone who talks about negotiations.” 

But now, almost two years after the killing of the commander, according to the spokesman of Iran’s foreign ministry Saeed Khatibzadeh, messages from the United States delegation have been indirectly delivered to the Iranian team in Vienna, and they were “duly responded,” and nobody on the streets of Tehran is brandishing crushed teeth.

Observers following the talks share the understanding that given the nature of Iran’s lineup of negotiators and the snippets of information trickling out of the last two rounds of talks in Vienna, a deal remains a remote possibility unless there is real will for engagement.

‘Asking for the impossible’

Richard Boucher, an American diplomat and the former deputy secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, believes “both sides are asking for the impossible.”

“The US wants Iran to go back to the old deal. The Iranians want an upfront relaxation of sanctions and a guarantee that the deal can’t be broken, which couldn’t be done except by treaty which would never get ratified by the Senate. So, we’re stuck until they’re willing to work out an arrangement that produces the same uncertainty as before,” he told Asia Times.

“Perhaps there is a face-saving route to have IAEA be a firmer monitor of compliance with particular benchmarks for relaxing sanctions, but both sides will need to negotiate, not just insist on their positions,” he added.

Many European pundits also echo the cynicism that looms over the ongoing talks in the Austrian capital. Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based think tank Istituto Affari Internazionali, believes a blend of the Iranian negotiators’ inexperience with diplomacy and protocol, the limited ability of the United States to deliver full sanctions relief and the Europeans’ inadequate investment in preserving the JCPOA has rendered the resuscitation of the nuclear deal to a long haul.  

“Europeans on their side are playing a far less prominent role than in the past, having unfortunately demonstrated their limited ability to keep the JCPOA alive during the Trump years,” she said.

“For all of this, but also given that I do think that reaching some sort of agreement is in both parties’ interest, a more limited JCPOA minus deal seems to me to be what is most feasible,” she added.

Whereas Iran’s previous negotiating team presided over by the US-educated foreign minister Javad Zarif was pragmatic and dealt with the technicalities of getting a deal done, the new group obsesses with global justice and Cold War-era rhetoric revolving around terms such as “imperialism.” 

The new roster of Tehran brokers sporadically trots out the grievance that other countries’ nuclear programs are not scrutinized as fussily as Iran’s, and nations such as Israel or Saudi Arabia are not kept on a short leash for their nuclear enterprises.

They have also objected to the recently signed AUKUS collective security pact as evidence of Western hypocrisy.

Then-US president Donald Trump shows the document reinstating sanctions against Iran after pulling out of the JCPOA in 2018, a move applauded by Israel at the time. Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

‘Stronger scrutiny’

Nicholas L Miller, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, believes Iran is held to a stricter standard over its nuclear program, and there is a reason.

“The difference between Iran and Saudi Arabia or Australia is that Iran has a relatively recent history of actively pursuing nuclear weapons, so they warrant more scrutiny. It’s understandable that Iran is concerned about Israel, but they never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, so they have no obligation to accept international monitoring, whereas Iran does,” he told Asia Times.

“Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA was certainly unfair to Iran given that they had been in compliance, but it does make sense that their nuclear program faces stronger scrutiny,” he said.

But what does the future hold for the JCPOA revival talks? Should the international community, as well as the Iranian people, expect the Raisi administration to back down and meet the signatories of the deal halfway to reach a face-saving middle ground? 

Patrikarakos, a research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue responds: “There is a saying that only the right can raise taxes. It was only Ariel Sharon who could really withdrew from Gaza.

“It is easier for hardliners to make concessions sometimes, because they cannot be accused of being weak. Ultimately, one never knows. I learned long ago not to predict anything too certainly when it comes to the Iranian nuclear issue.”