International negotiators launched a new attempt on Thursday to save the 2015 nuclear deal. The new talks in Vienna followed a weeks-long hiatus in contacts and at the initiative of the EU, which, as a mediator between Iranians and Americans, recently drafted a treaty.
Although all those involved emphasize their willingness to reach an agreement, the chances of success are slim. Iran has advanced uranium enrichment to the point where it could build a nuclear bomb within months. The round of negotiations in Vienna could therefore be the last chance to prevent this by diplomatic means.
Two fundamental problems have prevented the talks from reaching an agreement since they began in spring 2021. The first hurdle is the great distrust between the US and Iran. Negotiators from the two countries do not speak to each other directly, but only through European mediators.
Distrust also characterizes the content of the Vienna talks. The United States withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 and imposed new sanctions on Iran. US President Joe Biden now wants to revive the treaty, but insists on Iranian concessions on uranium enrichment and strict controls on the Iranian nuclear program.
Conversely, Iran demands that the Americans guarantee that they will not withdraw from the treaty again in the coming years.
The second obstacle is that Iranians and Americans have come to terms with the limbo. The continuation of the talks protects Iran from new sanctions and from military strikes by Western allies such as Israel. Despite the sanctions, Iran can also increase its oil exports, especially to China.
At the same time, the Islamic Republic is expanding its nuclear program and curtailing the powers of the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). On the other hand, the US government is avoiding unpleasant decisions that would be due in the event of an agreement with the long-term negotiations.
This includes the question of whether it will remove the Iranian Revolutionary Guard from its terror list, as Tehran is demanding.
A round of talks in Qatar failed in July. However, there are now signs that the negotiation process is drawing to a close. Biden said a few weeks ago that the US “won’t wait forever” for Iran to be ready for a solution.
The EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also wants to come to a conclusion and stated that the draft European agreement leaves no room for “additional major compromises”. Details of the EU proposal are not known, but the main features have been clear for months: if Iran scales back uranium enrichment and submits to IAEA controls, it will be rewarded with a gradual lifting of sanctions.
Borrell is in a hurry because the atomic bomb for Iran is getting closer and closer. According to the IAEA, Iran has enriched more than 40 kilograms of uranium to 60 percent. If the material were enriched to 90 percent, Iran could use it to build a nuclear warhead, which could be done in a matter of weeks. According to the nuclear treaty, Iran must limit enrichment to less than four percent.
Iranian politicians emphasize that their country’s nuclear program is only for civilian purposes. However, according to Western information, the highly enriched uranium that Iran now has is only used for military purposes.
In addition, Iran is suspected of hiding parts of its nuclear program, even though it is required to make full disclosures under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In response to the criticism, Iran shut down more than two dozen IAEA surveillance cameras in June.
The US and Iran blame each other for the deadlock in negotiations so far. Iranian negotiator Kani Bagheri, who met with EU coordinator Enrique Mora in Vienna on Thursday, reiterated his willingness to conclude the talks quickly “if the other side is also willing to do so.” The head of the US delegation, Rob Malley, said almost verbatim that in Vienna it would soon become clear whether Iran was ready for a solution.