What to expect as Iran nuclear deal talks restart in Vienna | Nuclear Energy News

Tehran, Iran – Representatives of Iran and world powers will reconvene in Vienna to try to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal whose fate is set to affect the region and beyond.

Political delegations from Iran, China, Russia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States are expected back in the Austrian capital on Tuesday to engage in the final stretch of negotiations that began in April last year.

Iran and the US are not engaging in direct talks since the latter’s withdrawal from the deal in 2018 that followed imposing harsh sanctions that are still in place.

The two sides have bridged some gaps since the start of the eighth round of talks in November last year but differences remain, especially on what sanctions the US must lift.

Iran wants all sanctions imposed by the administration of former US President Donald Trump lifted, while the Joe Biden administration has said it is prepared to lift those “inconsistent” with the deal.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the deal is formally known, provided sanctions relief for Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.

A year after Trump started imposing sanctions, Iran gradually grew its nuclear efforts and is now employing advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium up to 60 percent while maintaining it will never use it to make weapons.

‘Best realistic option’

To reach an agreement in Vienna, a realistic view of the talks and the benefits a restored JCPOA could entail for all sides involved is required, analysts say.

All sides have a more realistic understanding of what can be achieved in the talks and recognise that they cannot go on for much longer, according to Tehran-based foreign policy analyst Diako Hosseini.

“I think this will probably be the final round of the talks, and what we can deduce so far is that chances of the talks being successful is more than their failure, unless the sides overstep in their final efforts to gain more concessions,” Hosseini told Al Jazeera.

He added that doing away with expectations that the other side could not possibly fulfil due to either distrust or local political constraints as well as understanding the limitations of the nuclear deal would be key to achieving an agreement.

“All sides need to understand that a potential agreement would be less beneficial for Iran and the US than the 2015 deal, but under current circumstances, returning to the deal and keeping the window of diplomacy open is the best realistic option,” he said.

Last week, US Special Representative on Iran Robert Malley confirmed that a restored nuclear deal would not be able to provide the same nuclear nonproliferation benefits as Iran’s so-called “breakout time” – months required to acquire enough fissile material for a bomb – is significantly shorter.

‘Negotiating tactic’

However, Malley said “it is still well worth getting back into the deal, there’s still much that can be salvaged” while also, once again, warning that there are only weeks left to save the JCPOA due to Iran’s nuclear advances.

“I think this is a negotiating tactic,” said Barbara Slavin, the director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, about repeated Western claims that there is very little time left, even as Iran’s nuclear programme has been unconstrained for more than a year.

“As long as Iran is willing to ship out stockpiles of excess uranium and mothball advanced centrifuges, the JCPOA will be worthwhile,” she told Al Jazeera. “That said, the longer the talks go on, the more time it gives critics in both countries to undermine negotiations.”

Iran has said it will not abide by any “artificial deadlines” but is serious about quickly achieving a deal that secures its national interests.

While critics in Tehran have grown more silent after President Ebrahim Raisi took office in August 2021, those in Washington still support the “maximum pressure” approach of the Trump presidency.

Most recently, a group of 33 Republican senators warned Biden that if he does not allow Congress to have supervision over any nuclear agreement with Iran, they will work to thwart it.

Remaining differences

The Atlantic Council’s Slavin said she is “cautiously optimistic” that the Vienna talks will be successful, but believes that Iran needs to accept the US position on sanctions relief.

“Not all Trump-era sanctions will be removed, but those ‘inconsistent’ with the JCPOA will be waived and Iran will get access to $100bn in hard currency reserves abroad as well as be able to freely export oil again,” she said.

On Monday, European officials called for a “spirit of compromise” in the upcoming talks.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said reaching a swift agreement depends on the conduct and political will of the US and European parties.

“In the latest texts achieved in the Vienna negotiations, parts of our demands on lifting sanctions have not been considered,” he said.

Talks in Vienna have also revolved around Iran’s demands for guarantees the US will not renege on the deal again, and verification on effective lifting of sanctions.

Vali Nasr, professor of International Affairs and Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University, believes Iran and the US need a new nuclear deal for their own reasons.

“Iran needs economic relief and the United States does not want to see Iran as a threshold nuclear state and an ongoing crisis in the Middle East,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that both need to make compromises.

Nasr said Iran is worried about permanent sanctions despite a deal, and a reversal of a deal under a new US president.

“Finding ways to make sanctions relief resilient is key to success in Vienna,” he said.

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