Surprise resumption of Iran nuclear talks amid limited expectations

In this photo released by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Enrique Mora, a leading European Union diplomat, left, shakes hands with Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani in Tehran, Mar. 27, 2022 (Photo: Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP
In this photo released by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Enrique Mora, a leading European Union diplomat, left, shakes hands with Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani in Tehran, Mar. 27, 2022 (Photo: Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – The European Union resumed its mediation efforts between the US and Iran on reviving the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord in Vienna on Thursday. The resumption of talks came as a surprise since US officials had, until quite recently, discounted prospects of success.

Indeed, the renewal of the talks—strongly promoted by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell—was described by The Washington Post as a "last-ditch effort" to reach a new agreement. 

In fact, it was the second such last-ditch effort. The first was a hastily convened meeting in Qatar a month ago. Borrell had pressed for that meeting as well, and it quickly ended in failure. 

Read More: Iran nuclear talks end after just two days, as doubts grow about effort

Yet Borrell succeeded in reconvening the negotiations in their original venue—Vienna. After two days of such talks, there has been no word about them—neither of success nor failure. 

This latest negotiating effort followed an op-ed by Borrell in The Financial Times last Tuesday. Initially, the US appeared cool to Borrell's suggestion to resume talks on the accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Yet Borrell has close relations with the Biden administration, and some US officials maintain there is no downside to renewing talks, even if prospects for success are not particularly good. 

Outside analysts, however, complain that such a stance conveys a sense that Washington is keener than Tehran on reaching an accord. Such unseemly eagerness suggests US weakness, they say, not only to the Iranians but to US allies in the region as well.

Earlier US Pessimism

Two weeks ago, National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, Brett McGurk, told a group of think tank experts that it was "highly unlikely" that the Iranian nuclear deal would be revived in the near future. 

Asked about Borrell's op-ed last week, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price was non-committal. Like McGurk, he blamed Iran for the impasse.

"We've been in touch with our European allies," Price said. "We are reviewing [Borrell's] draft understanding," and "we'll share any reactions we have with the EU directly."

And Price continued, "It is our understanding" that the latest EU proposal "was based on the deal that has been on the table, that was painstakingly negotiated among the P5+1," which "we have been prepared to accept since March."

"There has been one country that has prevented a return to compliance with the JCPOA," Price affirmed, and "that is Iran."

Read More: US remains cool to proposals for reviving Iran nuclear deal

It is unclear what, if anything, has changed in Tehran's position.

Borrell's Role in Renewing the JCPOA

In his Financial Times op-ed, Borrell reviewed the history of the EU-mediated attempts to revive the JCPOA and the central role that he has played.

Borrell began by praising the JCPOA, as it was concluded in 2015, hailing it as "a landmark diplomatic deal." Of course, he did not mention the basic criticism regularly made of the deal: key provisions expire with time, so the JCPOA does not permanently prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. 

In fact, that is what prompted the Trump administration to withdraw from the agreement. Israel had urged just such a course, but as former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak noted, the big flaw in that policy was that neither the US nor Israel developed an alternative course of action, such as a military option, to address the threat of Iran's nuclear program, when Tehran began to exceed the JCPOA's limits, as was likely.

As Borrell recounted in the Financial Times, the result was a "dangerous escalation." 

Borrell then described his role in terms that are little used or recognized. The "tag line" identifying Borrell as the author of his Financial Times piece identified him as "EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy," his usual title.

However, in his piece, Borrell described himself as "JCPOA co-ordinator"—as if he had more standing on this issue than any national government, including the US. 

"In my capacity as JCPOA co-ordinator," Borrell wrote, "I seized the political momentum of a new US administration to launch in April 2021 a diplomatic process" to "facilitate a US return to the deal and full US and Iranian implementation of their JCPOA commitments."

"This text represents the best possible deal that I, as facilitator of the negotiations, see as feasible." Borrell continued. 

"It is not a perfect agreement," he wrote, "but it addresses all essential elements"—as if the 75-year-old former Spanish Foreign Minister from the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party had the authority and standing to substitute his judgment for that of national figures and national institutions.

Borrell enjoys cordial relations with the Biden administration, however, and his warm ties with Secretary of State Antony Blinken were on full display at the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Foreign Minister's meeting in Cambodia this week.

Blinken and Borrell both attended that event and met on Thursday—the first day of the renewed talks on reviving the JCPOA—on the sidelines of the ASEAN conference and addressed the press before their meeting. 

"It's particularly good to see my friend and partner, Josep Borrell and all of our colleagues from the EU," Blinken began. "We are partners of first resort when it comes to tackling the many challenges that are before us," reflecting the Biden administration's emphasis on multilateral diplomacy.

As Blinken listed the issues about which the US was coordinating with the EU, he, notably, did not mention Iran.

However, Borrell certainly did. "Thank you. Thank you, Tony. I like to be considered a friend of first resort," he began, and the third issue on their agenda that Borrell mentioned was, in fact, Iran.

"We'll use this opportunity also to share with, again, the Secretary of State about the JCPOA negotiations, which we've been trying to push and (inaudible) administrations," Borrell said. "Let's hope that it can be fruitful."

Are Failed Efforts Cost-free?

A senior Biden administration official told Israeli media that it was not a problem for the US to engage in diplomacy that had, admittedly, little chance of success. 

The Biden administration has "lost nothing" by remaining at the negotiation table to revive the Iran nuclear deal, even as Tehran continues to simultaneously expand its nuclear program, a senior US official told The Times of Israel last week. The official went on to note that Washington has not ceased imposing sanctions targeting Iran "even as it pursues a diplomatic resolution," the paper reported.

Others, however, disagree strongly. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who became prime minister on July 1, criticized the hasty resumption of JCPOA talks a month ago in Qatar as "a strategic mistake that sends the wrong message to Iran."

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, suggested something similar to Kurdistan 24 regarding the latest round of negotiations.

"Washington is losing the perception that it has a Plan-B on Iran or that it really means it, when it says that the door for diplomacy is closing," Ben Taleblu warned. 

"As long as Tehran believes that Washington cannot commit to anything other than talks," he added, "it will have every incentive to wait out the selective sanctions enforcement underway since May."