Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi could draw closer together depending on the outcome of the JCPOA talks. Image: Twitter

Before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the largest military attack on the European continent since World War II, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was arguably the West’s most urgent diplomatic priority.

Representatives from Iran and six world powers have in recent weeks shuttled to Vienna to regenerate the 2015 nuclear deal that was shattered when then-US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the pact and reinstated punishing sanctions against Tehran in 2018.

Now, the Tehran hardliners who once berated the deal largely because it was negotiated by the moderate president Hassan Rouhani are in charge of resurrecting the pact under the ultra-conservative Ebrahim Raisi, who has made it clear since taking office last August that he is committed to diplomacy.

Iran’s senior nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, departed Vienna for Tehran on February 23 for a “short trip” to seek final advice from top authorities on sticking points but is now on his way back to Vienna, where he will meet P4+1 (Britain, China, France and Russia along with Germany) delegates this week at his opulent 19th-century hotel Palais Coburg residence.

On Sunday, Russia’s main envoy in the talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, tweeted there was a “very high probability” of a deal within a week. That followed unusually optimistic comments from Washington that an agreement was “close.” Sticking points have prevented Tehran and Washington from resolving their differences and it’s unclear exactly how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might influence the discussions.

News reports noted Iran could possibly ramp up shipments beyond 1 million barrels a day within months of a revived accord, offering potential relief as the Ukraine conflict pushed oil above $100 a barrel. 

The Chinese representative, Wang Qun, has also said that the talks are at a “last stage,” telling reporters last week that interlocutors are “only a small step away from the final agreement.”

European diplomats and US officials don’t share the same level of optimism, maintaining that there are fault lines that haven’t been bridged and that they risk imploding the talks altogether.

US envoy Rob Malley, who is involved in the diplomacy but doesn’t talk directly to the Islamic Republic’s delegates and instead exchanges messages and “non-papers” through Europeans and Russians, told Axios that conjectures about the imminent conclusion of the talks are “very premature speculations.”

French representative Philippe Errera said last week “we will continue until we reach an agreement or announce the collapse of negotiations next week.”

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

The secrecy with which the Raisi administration has conducted the negotiations, and its limited engagement with the media on the specifics of the talks, has prevented details about the bones of contention from leaking to the public sphere.

But there are indications that what has spawned the current impasse is Iran’s insistence that the US give binding guarantees that future US administrations will not violate the agreement and that all sanctions introduced by Trump, including the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, are dropped.

The US team, however, has made it clear that it cannot give any legal guarantee that ties the hands of a future president. There are also cleavages on the scope of the sanctions to be removed under a renewed JCPOA.

Iran is reportedly pleading for all punitive measures introduced since 2015 to be lifted, while the US contends it is only prepared to nullify nuclear-related sanctions, not those imposed for human rights violations and alleged terrorism sponsorship.

“Not only does the US have a record of breaking agreements even before Trump, but the Republican Party is unanimous in its hostility to the JCPOA, and it is all but certain that a future Republican administration will resume the economic war on Iran as soon as they can,” said Daniel Larison, a contributing editor at Antiwar.com.

“I assume that the Iranian government will ultimately accept that the best that the Biden administration can do is to commit to sanctions relief for as long as Biden remains president and that it will be preferable to get something rather than nothing,” he said.

Robert Howse, professor of international law at New York University School of Law, told Asia Times the Iranian leadership is certainly cognizant that a legal guarantee of non-violation of a new deal isn’t viable.

“I would bet that Iran’s negotiators and advisers know enough about the US legal and political system to be aware that Biden cannot give legally binding guarantees. The recent statement by the [Iranian] foreign minister suggesting that something like a political statement from the Speaker of Congress might do reflects this.”

“The Iranian leadership will need to be able to present some other type of concession or accommodation as equivalent to or a substitute for a legal guarantee – front-ending sanctions relief for instance, or the US simply lifting of some extra measures that results in immediate economic benefit to Iran,” Howse added.

Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, the body tasked with overseeing the direction of the negotiations, and other Iranian officials will likely stand their ground and not engage in direct talks with US representatives. That’s in part because they will have a hard time selling a deal and the prospect of engagement with the US to their hardline domestic base.

Groups of people in Tehran attended a demonstration to condemn hostile US policies and mark the anniversary of the American Embassy takeover back in 1979. Anti-US feeling remains strong in Iran. Photo: WikiCommons

“Iran’s refusal to engage in direct talks with the United States slows the talks down and invites miscommunication. It’s usually a bad idea to refuse to talk to a major power – look at how nobody is cutting off relations with Russia right now, for example, or how Nixon was praised for restoring US relations with China,” said John Allen Gay, executive director of the John Quincy Adams Society and a former managing editor of The National Interest.

“Talks aren’t a concession. Only a vain government would think that merely speaking to its diplomats is a gift they bestow upon the world. That has been an issue on both sides of the US-Iran relationship over the years,” he told Asia Times.

As Russia tightens the noose on Kiev and brandishes the nuclear option against those who support Ukraine’s resistance, concerns are growing about how the war could derail diplomacy on Iran. Some observers believe that Russia and Iran might draw closer into an anti-Western front while others suggest Moscow could try to use the JCPOA talks as a bargaining chip to pressure the West.

Samuel Hickey, a research analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, DC, notes both the United States and Russia have so far prevented the crisis in Ukraine from derailing their collaboration in containing Iran’s nuclear program, but that the dynamic may not last. 

“It is difficult to speculate, but so far, both the United States and Russia have been able to compartmentalize the respective crises in Ukraine and Iran and work harmoniously towards that shared goal of reviving the JCPOA,” he said.

“However, there is a real risk that if negotiations drag on too much longer and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine begins to go south, Russia could thwart the talks in Vienna by attempting to blackmail the West,” Hickey said. “It is unlikely because reviving the JCPOA is in both the United States and Russia’s national security interests, but it does add greater pressure on the negotiators to finalize a deal now,” he told Asia Times.

Hickey anticipates a race to escalation and unforeseen new consequences should the talks fail.

“If talks in Vienna fail, then the world should brace for a risky escalation that has the possibility to spiral out of control. Iran might up the nuclear ante further, which could lead the United States to impose even more punitive sanctions…Should talks fail, it is unclear what might happen if Iran inches too much closer to enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb and Israel’s blood pressure rises.”

Despite the uncertainties and dangers shrouding the process, and while the negotiators continue trotting out that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” some observers believe pragmatism may yet prevail.

This file handout picture released by Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization on November 4, 2019, shows atomic enrichment facilities at Natanz nuclear power plant, some 300 kilometers south of capital Tehran. Photo: AFP / Atomic Energy Organization of Iran

“Raisi has wanted to demonstrate that his administration would drive a harder bargain than his predecessor, so he has been fairly inflexible with respect to sanctions relief and guarantees from the US. In the end, I think he will be prepared to accept a compromise to revive the JCPOA, but only if the Biden administration shows a similar flexibility on the question of sanctions relief,” said Larison.

As the talks approach what some refer to as their “endgame,” reasonable voices in Tehran, Washington and European capitals still ruefully dwell on how Trump’s unilateralism plunged the Middle East into new rounds of chaos and sabotaged Iran’s relations with the West, which had just begun to take off after years of inertia.

But if the JCPOA talks are held hostage to the Russia-Ukraine crisis and thus ultimately fail, Eastern Europe won’t likely be the only region wracked by new rounds of instability.