Intelligence Brief: Nuclear Talks Start Poorly

For the first time in over five months, the states that are – or were – party to the Iran nuclear accord – met in Vienna to try to find a way to bring all parties back into compliance. After the Trump administration’s withdraw in 2018, the Iranian government waited and then began to cease complying with various nuclear obligations under the accord. President Biden, when he came into office, indicated that he wanted to negotiate a way for both Iran and the United States to mutually come back into the accord. Talks with the other parties to the agreement began in April and continued through June when Iran pulled back to allow its new administration to review the situation and send its own negotiating team to Vienna. This happened this week, and initial reports on the new Iranian administration’s positions are not positive.

In an extensive backgrounder by a senior U.S. State Department official, the U.S. representative indicated that the Iranian delegation came to Vienna with positions that – to Washington’s points of view – moved things backwards from where the talks left off in June. Specifically, the official said that the new Iranian positions walked back compromises that the previous Iranian delegation had floated in the negotiations and pocketed – or attempted to – all of the compromises that the U.S. and other parties had made in the previous round of talks. In addition, the U.S. official noted that Iran had very recently increased its nuclear activities, in one instance preparing to double its ability to enrich uranium to 20 percent while not engaging with the IAEA on ongoing monitoring issues. The U.S. rep indicated that this was not just Washington’s disappointment but also that of the EU, China, and Russia. Iran’s tactics seem to be a combination of maximum pressure on the nuclear activities front coupled with a belief that this would allow it not to have to compromise – a position not unlike that of the Trump administration when it withdrew from the accord. The Russian representative tried to explain the situation a way after the U.S. briefing saying that this was a standard negotiating tactic and that, in complex negotiations, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. The U.S. signaled that it had options for addressing its concerns about Iran’s nuclear capabilities even if no agreement were to be reached.

In response to the U.S. background briefing, the Iranian government released its own background briefing on its positions and how it viewed this first week of negotiations. Its briefing emphasized that the Iranian proposals were consistent with the JCPOA and the United Nations Security Council resolution that endorsed the deal. The overall focus of Iran’s background briefing was – in line with its rhetoric in the interregnum – that the focus of the negotiations is entirely about the United States lifting all sanctions that were put in place by the Trump administration – whether they related to the JCPOA explicitly or not. The Iranian briefing painted Tehran’s proposals as perfectly normal and that the ball was now in the U.S. court to go back and figure out how it would respond. In fact, the talks are now in a “technical pause” which allows all sides to consult with policy makers in capitals. So what comes after this technical pause? It depends on what the U.S. and Iran decide they are willing to negotiate on and compromise on (the EU, Russia, and China will go along with whatever Washington and Tehran can agree upon). To work, both sides have to give, but domestic politics and laws on each side will likely prevent compromise.

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