- On Monday, February 28, Ali Bagheri-Kani, Iran’s chief negotiator, returned to Vienna and resumed negotiations, after having left for Tehran on Thursday for consultations.
- U.S. and Western government officials are signaling this may be the last week to negotiate a return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Although similar statements have been made previously, these are much more specific – albeit so far only attributed to anonymous sources, not made publicly by high-ranking officials.
- Over the weekend, Western diplomatic sources warned if “within the next few days [the] remaining issues are not resolved, the JCPOA will definitely be dead and it will be impossible to revive it.”
- On Monday, a senior unnamed State Department official said “final decisions have to be taken this week – either we have a deal or we do not.”
- The Biden administration has said repeatedly for months that time is running out to rejoin the deal, and in early February it said that it viewed the end of the month as the unofficial deadline – after which point Iran’s nuclear program would be too far advanced for a JCPOA return to effectively constrain it.
- It remains to be seen how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will affect nuclear negotiations with Iran.
- Monday was the first Vienna meeting since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” and invaded Ukraine on February 24, as Bagheri-Kani had already returned to Tehran at that time.
- Since Russia’s invasion began, U.S. leaders have refused contact with their Russian counterparts in other situations, but the Biden administration said explicitly on Friday it will continue to engage with Russian representation at the Vienna talks.
- The Russian negotiator had previously touted his “close consultations and coordination” with U.S. Special Envoy Rob Malley.
- U.S. officials might be more determined now to reach a deal quickly, in order to focus their energies on Ukraine and, as the administration believes, put Iran’s nuclear program “in a box.”
- Meanwhile, both Iran and Russia might seek to slow down the talks:
- Tehran might use any U.S. impatience or distraction as an opportunity to press for even greater concessions.
- Moscow might have an interest in prolonging negotiations, in order to pull U.S. attention from the war in Ukraine and increase pressure on Washington to focus on Iran’s advancing nuclear program.
- Despite Iran’s foreign ministry claiming on Monday that “more than 98 percent of a draft agreement” has been prepared, several key Iranian demands remain publicly unresolved, which it refers to as its “red lines,” namely:
- Demanding U.S. sanctions relief beyond what the JCPOA requires, including lifting the foreign terrorism designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC);
- Insisting the Biden administration provide guarantees that the United States won’t leave a renewed JCPOA and/or reimpose sanctions on Iran; and
- Shutting down a separate inquiry by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into suspected undeclared Iranian efforts to build a nuclear weapon.
- The Biden administration’s many months of unfulfilled warnings have given Tehran every incentive to stick to its red lines – even though all three fall outside the parameters of the JCPOA – in order to drag out talks, continue advancing its nuclear program and build additional negotiating leverage.
- Consequently, JINSA assesses any purported “return” to the original JCPOA at this point would only delay Iran’s nuclear program half as much, and for only half as long, as the decade-long, 12-month breakout time to a bomb touted by the Obama administration as the deal’s core U.S. benefit.
- The Biden administration should reject Iran’s red lines that have nothing to do with the JCPOA, and demand Tehran return to the original deal this week or American diplomats leave Vienna – full stop.
- In parallel, the United States urgently must work with Israel to ensure a viable “Plan B” alternative to diplomacy, in order to more effectively deter or deny Iranian aggression.