Iran nuclear talks resume on Tuesday; moved to Qatar from Vienna

"Iran needs to decide to drop their additional demands that go beyond the JCPOA."
Representatives attend a meeting of the joint commission on negotiations aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna, Dec. 9, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
Representatives attend a meeting of the joint commission on negotiations aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna, Dec. 9, 2021. (Photo: AFP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – As a result of intense European Union (EU) diplomacy, negotiations over reviving the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), are to resume Tuesday with their venue moved from Vienna to Qatar.

The US has agreed to attend the talks, which are actually held just between the Europeans and Iran. The Europeans act as intermediaries, passing on the US and Iranian positions to each party in what is an unusually clumsy format.

Britain, France, and Germany, which are co-signers of the agreement that former President Donald Trump left in 2018, will attend the Qatar talks. However, Russia and China, also co-signers, will not. 

No explanation has been given for the change in venue. However, it is clearly more inconvenient for the European parties that will be in attendance but more convenient for the Iranian negotiators.

US did Negotiate on Delisting IRGC as Terror Group—but to no avail

One startling point was revealed in the reporting about the resumption of the JCPOA talks.

The Biden administration had always maintained publicly that it had rejected the demand that the Iranians introduced in March, after nearly a year of JCPOA negotiations.

Tehran then demanded that the US remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from its Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list. The Biden administration publicly said that was impossible, and the Iranian demand caused the suspension of the negotiations for three months.

However, as The Washington Post reported, that was not really true. As a senior Biden administration official told the Post, "We were prepared to lift it [the FTO designation], if Iran agreed to some reciprocal steps."

"Those steps," the Post said, "reportedly included stemming IRGC activities in war zones such as Yemen and Syria, and support for Hezbollah."

"'They weren't prepared' to do so," the Post continued, and "'it's now off the table,' the official said."

He also expressed pessimism about whether the talks would produce any significant progress: "we're not going to prejudge, but we are keeping our expectations very much in check." 

Similarly, on Monday, a story in Politico cited a senior State Department official as having "very low expectations." It also reported that two senior Western officials had echoed the US pessimism, saying that "the talks in Qatar are not likely to last more than two or three days."

A Draft Agreement Already Exists—so what is to negotiate? 

On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Tehran with his Iranian counterpart. Afterward, both ministers made the surprise announcement that they favored the resumption of JCPOA negotiations (although it now turns out that Russia will not attend them).

But as no mention was made by either minister about dropping the demand for delisting the IRGC, Kurdistan 24 asked the State Department for comment.

"We are prepared to immediately conclude and implement the deal we negotiated in Vienna for mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA," a State Department spokesperson responded. Yet, for that to happen, she continued, "Iran needs to decide to drop their additional demands that go beyond the JCPOA."

Read More: US says no JCPOA renewal if Iran sticks to demands, as EU foreign policy chief pays surprise visit to Tehran

As the State Department spokesperson indicated, there is already an agreement with Iran. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said much the same in a press conference on Monday. 

"There is a deal available on the table to Iran, and it's up to Iran to decide whether or not it wants to take it," Sullivan said.

JCPOA not a Treaty in US Law

Iran wants assurances that any revived JCPOA will be binding on future administrations. For that to be so, the agreement would need to be a treaty, which would require approval by the US Senate by a two-thirds majority.

But the agreement is unpopular in Congress! It is impossible for the Biden administration to get two-thirds of the Senate to approve it—as it was impossible seven years ago when the Obama administration first negotiated the agreement. 

"Biden is constitutionally unable to do" that, "even if he wanted to," the Post reported. "'We have gone through this time and time again,'" as the senior US official told the Post. 

It is, thus, unclear what has changed to cause the talks to resume—although a significant part of the impetus seems to have come from the EU. "In its efforts to restart the negotiations, the EU has proposed 'some tweaks, but not things [already] debated ad nauseam and things unrelated to the deal,'" the US official said 

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, suggested to Kurdistan 24 that "the effort to revive the JCPOA appears more like a bid to get an oil deal than a counter proliferation deal" in the wake of the sharp spike in energy prices following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"That spells trouble for those who think a deal predicated on the JCPOA will stop the Islamic Republic's march to the bomb," Ben Taleblu added.

The renewed JCPOA talks come as Biden prepares for his first trip to the Middle East as president. From July 13 to 16, he will travel to Israel, the West Bank, and Saudi Arabia, where he will join a regional summit: the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq (the Iraqi delegation may include representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government).

Israel and Saudi Arabia oppose a renewal of the JCPOA because they believe the agreement is fundamentally flawed and will not stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, as Ben Taleblu suggested. 

Russia and Iran

Michael Arizanti, a Kurdish affairs analyst at Britain's Maidstone Centre for International Affairs, cautioned that "Washington has engaged with China and Russia as if they have similar positions on Iran," but, as he noted, "Beijing and Moscow have been working with Iran to undermine the US leadership and alliances."

Borrell, and the EU more widely, have adopted a tough stand toward Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, but they appear not to have considered Arizanti's point.

That Iran's Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, announced his country's readiness to return to the JCPOA negotiations after meeting his Russian counterpart might have underscored the need to carefully consider developments. Instead, Borrell made a sudden and rushed trip to Tehran. 

One might well think that Russia does not want a resumption of the JCPOA because that would put more Iranian oil on the world market, lower prices, and reduce Moscow's leverage over the US and Europe.

However, The Washington Free Beacon has reported that if the JCPOA was renewed, Rosatom, Russia's top energy company, would get a huge—$10 billion— contract for construction at an Iranian nuclear plant. As it is part of the work necessary to implement a revived JCPOA, it would be exempt from sanctions.