Several months after Ebrahim Raisi assumed the presidency in Iran, the nuclear talks in Vienna that were halted at the end of former President Hassan Rouhani’s term are now set to resume on November 29. The question is why did it take over five months to resume the discussions? There are six important explanations for this extensive delay:
1. Appeasing Hardliners
Iran’s current Deputy Foreign Minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, who replaced Seyyed Abbass Raghchi, will lead the Iranian negotiating team in the Vienna talks. Bagheri Kani was previously deputy to the former top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in the prolonged and futile nuclear talks taking place during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, himself a vocal critic of the 2015 nuclear deal.
For years, Kani too was one of the staunchest opponents of the 2015 nuclear agreement and, like almost all ministers in the incumbent Raisi government, ridiculed Rouhani for signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Therefore, it is not surprising that the new negotiating team had no choice but to delay as much as possible the announcement to return to the nuclear talks, to meet their domestic camp’s wishes. All those who have blamed the JCPOA for the country’s problems over the past eight years now want to assure their own hardliner circles that they will not revive the agreement.
Bagheri Kani never uses the word “JCPOA” or “Continuation or Resumption of the Vienna Talks” in his posts on Twitter.
Indeed, Bagheri Kani never uses the word “JCPOA” or “Continuation or Resumption of the Vienna Talks” in his posts on Twitter. Instead, he seeks to convince his political camp that the Raisi diplomatic team is entering new negotiations aimed at the removal of the sanctions. Although observers say this is just a verbal argument against the deal and a propaganda ploy, one can assume that a reason behind the delay in announcing the readiness to resume the nuclear talks is meeting the needs of their base.
2. Increasing Leverage in Vienna
One of the classic tactics of Iran’s hardliners during discussions with Western countries is to increase their bargaining power. These politicians, who usually refuse to negotiate with the West, try to come to the negotiating table with all they have. During the Ahmadinejad administration, Iranian officials tried to increase their leverage by expanding the nuclear program.
Although the prolonged talks led by Jalili did not yield any results due to the lack of a proper plan for the meetings, Iran once again is following the same path and is coming to the consultations with a highly increased level of uranium enrichment.
The JCPOA permitted Iran to only use first generation or IR1 centrifuges and the deal allowed enrichment below 3.67percent. However, Tehran now uses advanced centrifuges and the enrichment level has increased to 20 percent and even 60 percent in some cases. The country also produces uranium metal in direct violation of the deal.
As a result, the new Iranian diplomatic team believes that the further they step away from the terms of the accord, the bigger their leverage will be. They are convinced they can ask for more concessions in exchange for reversing the course back towards an agreement from the United States and European countries.
3. Turbulence in Raisi’s Foreign Policy
In the last Iranian presidential debate on June 12, then candidate Ebrahim Raisi declared that his government would abide by the nuclear deal. However, his entourage had harshly criticized former president Rouhani for the agreement and appeared to be against the JCPOA from the very beginning.
Raisi most likely knew before the election that if he spoke about abandoning the deal, the number of votes against him would have increased. Now he faces a bumpy road towards the revitalization of the JCPOA and the resumption of the nuclear talks in Vienna as his diplomatic team is full of staunch opponents. Furthermore, a closer look at the comments by various government officials over the past few months shows a certain turbulence in Iran’s foreign policy.
Foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian declared on Iranian state television on October 3 that he had told the United States to unfreeze at least $10 billion of blocked Iranian financial reserves before starting the nuclear talks. But in a matter of days, on October 6, the Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh denied that Abdollahian had set a precondition for Iran to return to the talks. President Raisi also made contradictory statements on setting a time for the resumption of the talks, demonstrating the lack of cohesive diplomacy that has contributed to delaying Iran’s announcement to return to Vienna.
A lack of cohesive diplomacy has contributed to delaying Iran’s announcement to return to Vienna.
4. Skepticism Over the Goal of the Nuclear Program
While Iran’s Supreme Leader has issued a Fatwa banning the production and possession of nuclear arms, alleging that it will not seek to acquire such weapons, the hardliners who have tightened their grip on power under Raisi seem to be willing to revise the national security doctrine of the Islamic Republic.
The Trump administration’s unexpected withdrawal from the JCPOA in defiance of international objections may have brought Iran’s hardliners to the conclusion that they must push the nuclear program towards building weapons. If their real intention to build nuclear arms is publicized and leaked to the media, it would come with severe consequences.
These circles, who believe in the nuclear deterrence theory, are convinced that if Iran possesses a nuclear weapon, the risk of a foreign attack on Iran would go away forever and the Islamic Republic would guarantee its future survival.
While many of the current ruling elites of the Islamic Republic do not support the idea of pursuing a military nuclear program, a subtle desire to develop a nuclear program is an undeniable reason for the delay in Iran’s return to the negotiating table.
5. Iran’s Perspective on the Biden Administration
Iranian policymakers were upbeat after the Biden administration’s hasty pullout from Afghanistan, which came as a surprise to many. Tehran was especially jubilant that the United States would no longer have a military base next to Iran’s bases in Afghanistan. The exit also was in line with Iran’s grand strategy to see the United States completely pulling out of the Middle East.
Moreover, the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan despite global criticism was received by the Islamic Republic’s officials as confirming their long-standing assumption that the Biden administration was revising its priorities in the Middle East. Washington no longer wants to get involved in the region, allowing Iran to continue its arms development without America’s watchful eye.
Washington no longer wants to get involved in the region, allowing Iran to continue its arms development without America’s watchful eye.
Accordingly, Tehran might assume that if it continues its nuclear program, a possible military reaction from the US would be off the table. This perception makes sense since the US sanctions against Iran have already reached their peak, and although UN sanctions against Iran have not been re-imposed, the world currently abides by the secondary US sanctions.
As a result, Iranian officials strongly believe that Biden will not take tougher action against Tehran than what is in place. This idea has overshadowed their analysis and policies regarding the future of Iran’s nuclear program and has played a part in increasing reluctance to return to the negotiating table.
6. Iran’s Concern That a Deal with Biden May Not Last
Perhaps one of the main reasons that kept Iran away from the nuclear discussions is the fear of experiencing once again what the Trump administration did in May 2018. Despite Iran’s full abidance by the terms of the JCPOA, the Republican president decided to pull out from all agreements signed by President Obama.
Iranian officials are now understandably worried that despite Iran’s return to full compliance with the JCPOA, Trump, or one of his fervent Republican followers, may return to the White House in 2024 and leave the agreement once again.
“Unless any deal with Iran is ratified by the Senate as a treaty—which Biden knows will NOT happen—it is a 100 percent certainty that any future Republican president will tear it up,” Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz tweeted on October 31.
Ted Cruz is just one of many hawkish US officials who wish to intimidate Iran not to come back to the negotiating table with Washington and why Iranian officials have remained skeptical about the future of a possible new agreement.
Ultimately, despite these six reasons that prolonged Iran’s decision to resume talks on reviving the JCPOA for more than five months, the parties will meet in Vienna on November 29 for the seventh round of talks to discuss Iran’s nuclear program and the process of lifting sanctions on Tehran. Nevertheless, these six factors remain, leaving political observers with much skepticism about the success of the future talks.