Nuclear talks in Vienna: Is there a common EU position?

Nuclear talks in Vienna: Is there a common EU position?
Former EU HIgh Representative Federica Mogherini visiting Tehran. She was instrumental in concluding the JCPoA and defended its sun-set clauses. Credit: EU

The talks between Iran and the signatories of the joint nuclear agreement were resumed last Monday but did not result in any breakthrough.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA), signed in 2015 between Iran on the one side and the US, Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany on the other side, aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear programme at least until 2030 and preventing it from developing nuclear weapons in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

In 2018, the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the agreement, encouraged by the Netanyahu government in Israel, reimposed the sanctions and put “maximum pressure” on Iran. This had the opposite effect on Iran, which weathered the sanctions, resumed the enrichment of uranium up to the level of 60 % and by now has shortened the time to develop a nuclear weapon to a number of weeks.

The talks were resumed last April in Vienna but were suspended in June because of the presidential elections in Iran. They resulted in the election of hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi, notorious for his human rights record, who assumed office in August. In the meantime, Iran has accelerated its enrichment programme and denied access to monitors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

When the talks finally were resumed in Vienna on Monday (29 November), expectations were low that it would be possible to bridge the gap between the parties. Iran wants to lift the sanctions as soon as possible. The Western powers wants Iran not only to return to full compliance with the agreement but also to address its shortcomings. In the meantime, the Iranian centrifuges are spinning.

EU’s foreign policy chief, High Representative Josep Borrell is coordinating the talks. Two EU member states, France and Germany, and former member state United Kingdom, signed the JCPoA. Is there a common EU position on the talks and the end result?

“The resumption of the talks is a very important step,” a Commission spokesperson replied on Monday. “Of course, diplomacy is the only way forward. Our position hasn’t changed.”

“It’s crucial to pick up where we left last June and to bring the JCPoA back on track as soon as possible. The full implementation of the JCPoA is the only way for the international community to get the necessary assurances about Iran’s nuclear programme and for Iran to reap the full benefits of the agreement.”

Asked again on Friday about the progress in the talks, Peter Stano, Lead Spokesperson for EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, declined to comment on them as they are still on-going. He confirmed that EU’s position has not changed and referred to EU’s chief negotiator Enrique Mora, a Spanish diplomat and Borrell’s chief of staff.

At the start of the talks, Mora expressed understanding of the Iranian position. “The Iranian delegation represents a new administration in Tehran with new understandable sensibilities but they have accepted that the work done over the six first rounds is a good basis to build our work ahead.”

In fact, Iran’s top negotiator referred to everything discussed so far as merely a draft and insisted on first discussing the lifting of the sanctions. “Nothing is agreed on unless everything has been agreed on.” At the end of the week, it was apparent that the patience of the Western powers was running out and that Iran was stalling the talks.

Indirectly, the lead spokesperson admitted on Friday that no progress has been made in the talks that were described as technical and low-level. “High Representative Borrell will chair the talks when the conditions are right to raise the level in them.”

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken commented that, "Iran right now does not seem serious about doing what's necessary to return to compliance. The US will not allow Iran to drag out the process while continuing to advance its program," hinting that the US will pursue other options if diplomacy fails.

Existential threat

Iran is regularly threatening Israel with extinction and would pose an existential threat if it would develop nuclear weapons. Israel is not party to the talks but contrary to 2015 it is now trying hard to convince its partners to do everything in their power to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state and to keep all options on the table.

In a round of meetings last week, Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid tried to convince London and Paris to support its position.

“A nuclear Iran will thrust the entire Middle East into a nuclear arms race,” he said. “We will find ourselves in a new cold war, but this time the bomb will be in the hands of religious fanatics who are engaged in terrorism as a way of life.”

“Sanctions on Iran must not be lifted,” he added.  “Sanctions need to be tightened, there needs to be a credible military threat on Iran, because only this will prevent it from continuing its race towards a nuclear weapon. That race did not stop here, and it did not stop with the talks in Vienna.”

The Israeli defence minister, Benny Gantz, said that he has shared intelligence with Irael’s friends around the world that “points to Iran’s current process of dashing towards a nuclear weapon, blatantly violating the agreement that is in place with Europe.”

The Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, has declared that Israel will not be bound by a new nuclear deal with Iran and will retain its freedom of action, hinting at striking alone at Iran’s nuclear installations as a last resort. In the past, the Israeli air force destroyed a nuclear reactor in Iraq. It has built a capacity to strike against Iran but such a mission is far more complex and would be more difficult and dangerous to carry out.

Lately, former senior Israeli defence and security officials who worked in the Netanyahu administration have admitted that the JCoPA was the best deal possible in the circumstances and that cancelling it had made things worse.

The Brussels Times asked Riccardo Alcaro to comment on the on-going talks. He is an expert on EU and the nuclear deal and research coordinator and head of the Global Actors Programme of the Istituto Affari Internazionali.

What are the positions of Iran and the powers? Are they bound of what was eventually agreed in the previous rounds?

“The EU and other powers want the new round of negotiations to pick up where the previous six rounds between April and June left off,” he replied.

“At the time, the contours of an agreement had emerged according to which the US would suspend/lift all sanctions that it considered to be inconsistent with the JCPoA and Iran would go back to compliance with the deal. Details of the agreement had yet to be finalised, especially as far as the sequencing of US and Iranian actions were concerned, but apparently 90% of it was done.

“However, the new Raisi administration has never formally agreed to that. It’s now saying that what had been negotiated until June ’21 should be taken into account and provide the basis for the current talks, but it has clearly abstained from indicating that it feels itself bound by it.”

Is there a common EU position?

“There is a common position which is that the EU fully supports the restoration of the JCPoA and that if that doesn’t happen there will be consequences. It’s in the definition of such consequences that divisions may well emerge but I don’t think intra-EU differences will block EU action, especially if the E3 (the UK, France and Germany) and Borrell coordinate their moves with the US and Russia and China.

What is the likely outcome of the talks? Is there a plan B if the talks fail? What will happen then?

“Full restoration of the JCPoA is still possible, though not probable. A breakdown of the negotiations is also plausible, as is a watered-down agreement, a sort of JCPoA-minus. In case of a breakdown, economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran would grow from all sides and Iran’s rivals could push for the US to strike Iran’s nuclear facilitates.

Israel could actually take the initiative itself, which may eventually compel the US to intervene in support of it. Even China and Russia would be reluctant to provide Iran with diplomatic cover, although they would almost certainly oppose any military action. It’s safe to assume that the Iranian leaders are aware of such risks.

They might thus go for a more limited agreement, one that would give Iran only partial sanctions relief. This option has a certain appeal in Tehran because the conservative faction in power is not that much interested in reintegrating Iran into the international economy as the previous administration was.

Iran’s supreme leader, Khamenei, who has often spoken of the need to build a “resistance economy”, and president Raisi may be content with Iran being able to export hydrocarbons even though all other US sanctions remain in place.

In exchange, Iran could agree to freeze nuclear work at the current level (or scale it down less than mandated by the JCPoA) and accept again IAEA inspections. A JCPOA-minus would calm things down but would only be a temporary solution. If no new talks were agreed, tensions would rise again in the not-too-distant future.”

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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