European External Action Service (EEAS) Deputy Secretary General Enrique Mora and Iranian Deputy at Ministry of Foreign Affairs Abbas Araghchi wait for the start of talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in Vienna, Austria June 20, 2021. EU Delegation in Vienna/Handout via REUTERS
High stakes at the Vienna nuclear talks with Iran

Tehran’s negotiators must consider the wider political and strategic implications of every move they make.

The ongoing indirect US-Iran negotiations in Vienna on the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have thus far made little progress. Already ailing when Ebrahim Raisi was elected to the presidency in June 2021, negotiations were effectively suspended by a new hard-line government determined to jettison what was determined to be a “failed” negotiating strategy by former President Hassan Rouhani. Raisi and his colleagues know that the outcome of the talks, the latest round of which began on November 29, will shape Iran’s domestic and foreign relations for years to come. In the crucible of a regional and global map whose contours are shifting daily, Tehran’s negotiators must consider the wider political and strategic implications of every move they make.

Domestic politics in Tehran (and in Washington) could ultimately torpedo the Vienna talks. But Raisi must also consider the benefits of getting some kind of reasonable deal, even if doing so antagonizes the true believers in his government. These benefits might not only be economic but also geostrategic. Russia and China—whose influence in the region is crucial to Iran—want a deal even though they have effectively backed the tough opening position that the Islamic Republic set prior to resuming the talks. And despite their frustrations with Iran, Western European leaders must know that failed talks would leave the United States and its allies with a choice between two bad alternatives: containing—but not halting—Iran’s expanding nuclear program or risking a major military confrontation. Thus, European leaders and their negotiators in Vienna are eager for Iran to show flexibility.

Tehran faces a dilemma: how to signal to Moscow, Beijing, Paris, London, and Berlin that it will somehow compromise while not appearing to abandon its demand that Washington end nearly all sanctions as a precondition for further talks.

Tehran faces a dilemma: how to signal to Moscow, Beijing, Paris, London, and Berlin that it will somehow compromise while not appearing to abandon its demand that Washington end nearly all sanctions as a precondition for further talks. If Tehran has so far failed to square this particular circle, this is because the United States and its European friends have rejected Iran’s opening bid. Moscow, and perhaps even Beijing, might be inclined to implicitly back this position; however, they both would want to do so in ways that would protect their influence with Tehran. In a game of brinkmanship that is being shaped by the various quandaries of multiple players, the stakes could not be higher.

The technological clock ticks away

In an October State Department briefing, Robert Malley, the Biden Administration’s special envoy for Iran, noted that, “At some point, the JCPOA will have been so eroded because Iran will have made advances that cannot be reversed.” This is not, he explained, “a chronological clock, it’s a technological clock.” Coming from an analyst who has long brought a distinct blend of pragmatism and cautious optimism to his work, Malley’s assessment illuminates the fine line between Iran’s tactics and strategy. On a tactical level, Iran has increased the level and technological sophistication of its uranium enrichment program. And it has taken other related measures, all of which have been seen in Washington and other western capitals as a deliberate bid to pressure the United States into making concessions. Presumably, Iran could reverse these measures if given compelling incentives to do so, not least of which would be the removal of the nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration after it abandoned the JCPOA in 2018.

But Tehran’s tactical efforts could also tempt its leaders to move toward creating a more threatening enrichment capacity. This shift has become possible because each step in the enrichment process shortens the time required to achieve higher enrichment levels—that is, moving from 15 percent enriched uranium to 30 percent takes far more time than moving from 60 percent (the current level of enrichment Tehran has achieved) to 90 percent. Thus the “technological” clock that Malley noted is also a geostrategic one that is inching closer to midnight. The Biden Administration knows this. Indeed, as far back as August, Malley seemed to up the ante by warning Iran that the United States had “other options” if talks failed.

The White House’s engagement with Israel prior to the resumption of talks reportedly reinforced the fears of Israeli leaders that the administration is ultimately not prepared to signal a credible threat to use military power against Iran.

Such implicit threats have almost always helped to harden Iran’s stance, not only because Iranian leaders feel that maintaining a defiant stance is critical for domestic purposes but also because they doubt that the Biden Administration would risk a military conflict. The White House’s engagement with Israel prior to the resumption of talks reportedly reinforced the fears of Israeli leaders that the administration is ultimately not prepared to signal a credible threat to use military power against Iran. Lamenting Washington’s caution, a veteran Israeli security analyst has suggested that Israel will have to take matters in its own hands. But such messaging is unlikely to have any impact back in Tehran other than to convince it to dig in its heels.

Tehran’s opening (or final?) position

Indeed, in the week leading up to the resumption of talks, Iran’s lead negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani, laid out an extremely tough position, insisting that “we have no such thing as nuclear negotiations” but rather “negotiations to remove unlawful and inhuman sanctions.” Underscoring this stance, in an article entitled “Operation Sanctions Defeat,” the official newspaper of President Raisi set out five preconditions for talks: 1) that they focus solely on sanctions removal; 2) that Washington “compensate” Tehran for financial losses suffered after the Trump White House pulled out of the JCPOA; 3) that all non-JCPOA sanctions be lifted (including 1,500 sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration); 4) that a mechanism be created to verify sanctions removal; and 5) that Washington provide assurances that it would comply with any deal. Seeking further guarantees to deter Washington from reneging on an agreement, Bagheri Kani insisted that European governments promise to trade with Iran regardless of the US position. These positions were reportedly laid out in two documents that the Iranian negotiating team submitted at the outset of the Vienna talks.

Predictably, before and after the talks began, White House officials said that these positions were non-starters. Thus in a December 4 State Department briefing with an unnamed official (who may very well have been Malley), this official not only rejected the Iranian positions but insisted that “not just the Europeans, but the Russians and Chinese,” have suggested some “impatience that after all this time what Iran came back with was to walk back anything that they had floated and to assume that they could pocket all of the compromises that others had made.” Other administration officials have underscored their belief (or hope)—as Secretary of State Antony Blinken himself put it after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov—that “Russia shares our basic perspective on this.”

What is certain is that much of the diplomatic action will pivot around Washington’s and Tehran’s competition to gain support from Moscow and China.

Whether the White House’s calculations prove correct remains to be seen. What is certain is that much of the diplomatic action will pivot around Washington’s and Tehran’s competition to gain support from Moscow and China. This contest will be matched by Iran’s efforts to push or nudge European leaders closer to its position, or at least to get European negotiators to offer some kind of bridging proposals. Still, the fact that both US and Iranian officials now assert that the ball is in the other country’s court suggests that this negotiating match may not be sustainable.

The diplomatic game in Iran’s government

One familiar challenge in these kinds of negotiations is the difficulty each side has in predicting the value that the other attaches to a deal, or what they are really ready to pay to attain it. As one analyst notes, without knowing if the other side has really reached the limits of what it will give, or is simply posturing, one or both sides could have an incentive to misrepresent how much a deal is worth to them. Such posturing can quickly lead to a collapse of negotiations.

This problem seems especially pronounced now in part because it is not clear to both Iran’s friends and rivals whether its leaders agree on what they want to buy or how much to pay for it. Bagheri Kani is certainly a hard-liner by comparison to former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. But he comes from a powerful family of veteran conservative politicians and clerics whose positions on both economic and foreign policy issues have not always been in sync with more ultra-conservatives, especially those who favor jettisoning any nuclear talks in favor of an “eastern” foreign and economic policy directed toward Russia, and especially China.

Indeed, the proposition that Iran can forgo benefits that might come from ending sanctions is not one that seems to be favored by Deputy Foreign Minister Bagheri Kani, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, or President Raisi. And while Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is the final arbiter on these matters, he has not categorically abandoned the quest to negotiate an end to sanctions or to revive the JCPOA. To do so would court great risks. After all, Iran may have thus far mitigated the costs of sanctions by sustaining oil sales to several countries, most importantly China. But given persistent economic woes and a nationwide water shortage that recently prompted protests in Isfahan, Raisi cannot contain domestic unrest by relying on an eastern approach, one that many experts argue cannot substitute for trade with western countries.

Given persistent economic woes and a nationwide water shortage that recently prompted protests in Isfahan, Raisi cannot contain domestic unrest by relying on an eastern approach, one that many experts argue cannot substitute for trade with western countries.

To put it somewhat differently, for pragmatic hard-liners, the purpose of reaching out to China and Russia is to enhance Iran’s negotiating leverage with a view to ending sanctions. Their task is to show on the home front that they are as much part of the “resistance” to western powers as the ultra-conservatives, even as Raisi’s government strives to show Moscow, Beijing, and western governments that it is ready to make some compromises. Trying to walk this fine line, Iranian officials have insisted that they will not sacrifice Iran’s fundamental demands but that Tehran is also committed to remaining in the Vienna talks “as long as needed.”

Will Russia and China help Raisi dig out of his hole?

A report following the third day of the Vienna talks relays that Iranian negotiators were indignant when a European official read out a statement by Robert Malley. “Don’t threaten us,” one Iranian diplomat apparently warned. That European negotiators would effectively use the US position in such an overt manner surely irritated Iranian officials. After all, Tehran has rejected direct talks with the Americans because it does not want to emulate the previous Iranian government’s approach. Tehran also hopes to get European negotiators to consider some of its demands rather than fully side with the US position. But by the end of the first week of talks, European negotiators asserted that Iran was “breaking with almost all of the difficult compromises crafted in months of tough negotiations.” Insisting that Tehran’s opening proposals were unacceptable, this assessment demonstrated that Iran had overplayed its hand.

Of course, Iranian officials have denied any missteps. “The claim by some Western parties that Iran has had maximalist demands is unfounded,” Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian insisted during a December 6 meeting with visiting Syrian Foreign Minister Faysal al-Mokdad in Tehran. But the fact that this statement came on the very day that Bagheri Kani traveled to Moscow for consultations with Russian officials illustrates the hole that Tehran has dug for itself. Indeed, Russian officials indicated that they had communicated their concerns about Tehran’s position to Iranian officials. Neither Moscow nor Beijing can exercise much influence if Iranian officials make demands that unite the rest of the Vienna negotiators against Tehran while making Iran’s supposed friends look silly or ineffectual.

Neither Moscow nor Beijing can exercise much influence if Iranian officials make demands that unite the rest of the Vienna negotiators against Tehran while making Iran’s supposed friends look silly or ineffectual.

But the wider strategic issue at play is that Russia and China have geostrategic and economic interests in the Middle East that could be jeopardized by the failure of negotiations. A collapse of the talks might put ultra-conservatives in the driver’s seat and thus open the door to a wider US-Iranian military clash. Beijing and Tehran appear to be counting on Iran’s ability to expand its oil exports to China not only from existing fields but also from other less developed sites in Arvand and Doroud. Russian companies such as Lukoil also have been pursuing lucrative deals to develop Iranian oil fields in Mansouri, which has an estimated 3.3 billion barrels in oil reserves. These commercial relationships are part of a wider regional reality: that Moscow and Beijing want to maintain relations with a diverse set of players, including Israel and the Gulf Arab states. Dubai seeks to be a critical port in China’s Maritime Silk Road project and has struck an agreement with the Shanghai Stock Exchange to serve this purpose. Moreover, China reportedly began construction of a military facility in UAE’s Port of Khalifa; however, it was halted after US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan showed UAE officials satellite pictures that revealed China’s activities.

The efforts of Russia, and especially of China, to expand their geostrategic, commercial, and military footprint in the Middle East require a sustained push to reduce regional tensions, even as they seek to maintain their credibility with Tehran. Walking this line, and prior to the start of the Vienna talks, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called upon the Biden Administration to take “steps to rectify its policies first,” thus suggesting Beijing’s full support for Tehran’s demands. For his part, Iran’s foreign minister insisted that Tehran was committed to the talks and to increasing its coordination with China as the negotiations moved forward. At the same time, Chinese negotiators reportedly met Iranian officials in a bid to get them to streamline their position, and thus, it seems, signal some readiness by Tehran to actually negotiate. Beijing does not want the JCPOA to suffer a permanent death.

Adjusting to a changing regional and global order

Still, it is too early to conclude that China is ready to put greater pressure on Tehran. These recent events highlight shifts in a global order that have increased the diplomatic leverage of Moscow and Beijing. Despite coming on the heels of US concerns about Russia’s actions in the Ukraine and China’s growing military and economic prowess, these changes have left the Biden Administration looking to Russia and China to use their influence in Tehran to help Iran walk back positions that cannot be sustained without endangering the Vienna talks. Raisi may ultimately welcome such help because a failure of the talks might invite further social unrest on the home front. He may be ambivalent about reaching a deal, but the alternative scenarios could be worse.

This article has been republished with permission from Arab Center DC.

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