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Where Are U.S.-Iran Talks Headed?

Nov 25, 2021
  • Wang Fan

    Vice President, China Foreign Affairs University

On Nov. 3, Iran’s Ali Bagheri, political deputy in the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said multilateral talks will resume in Vienna, Austria, on Nov. 29. Where are these talks headed after being in limbo for months?

Iran reached a nuclear agreement with the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany in 2015. Under the deal, Iran would limit its nuclear activities, and the United Nations, the U.S. and the European Union would in turn lift economic sanctions. However, the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, following up with renewed sanctions. In May 2019, Iran gradually suspended some of the terms of the deal but promised that the initiatives taken would be “reversible.”

So what are the prospects for U.S. nuclear negotiations? What are the chances of a breakthrough?

There are several essential elements to reaching an agreement, starting with basic trust in each other, which involves a judgment about whether the commitment is credible and enforceable. The lack of trust between the U.S. and Iran is an obvious result of the arbitrary U.S. withdrawal from the deal, and a negative impression will continue to linger unless the Biden administration comes up with credible steps to reverse it.

Negotiations must take place on the basis of equal-footing. Because of serious asymmetry between the two countries, Iran must seek asymmetric advantages — for example, demonstrating that it has the ability to develop nuclear weapons. Iran’s spokesman on atomic energy affairs said the country is able to produce at least 25 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent, noting that 85 to 90 percent enrichment would be required to meet weapons-grade standards.

The structural contradictions between the U.S. and Iran are twofold.

First is ideology and culture. The United States cannot accept a theocratic regime in Iran nor tolerate a “non-democratic,” religious and anti-American regime that exerts significant influence in the Middle East.

Second is geopolitical tension. Given Iran’s crucial geostrategic location, an Iranian regime that is persistently anti-American, exporting anti-American ideology and establishing an anti-American camp poses the biggest obstacle to U.S. hegemony in the Persian Gulf region. In fact, since 1979, various conflicts and problems between the U.S. and Iran, including the Iranian nuclear issue, have arisen due to such structural contradictions and rendered it difficult to achieve any substantial breakthrough in U.S.-Iranian relations. This motivates U.S. attempts to foment a color revolution within Iran.

As a hardliner against the U.S., Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi said he would not negotiate for the sake of negotiation, and will not tie the economic situation and livelihoods of Iran’s people to negotiations. He categorically rejected negotiating on the country’s regional policy and missile program. Although Iran faces many difficulties, it must adhere to the principle of equality in negotiations and will not accept unreasonable demands by the U.S. On the contrary, the U.S. should abandon its inhumane and illegal sanctions against Iran. The former Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said Iran can wait. It bears no illusions about negotiations.

Of course, the two countries share a common goal, which is to ease tensions in the Middle East. That is a keen desire for the U.S. and also an imperative for Iran to address domestic economic woes and the hit from the pandemic. The resumption of negotiations shows that both sides intend to ease the conflict. However, it does not indicate a quick fix is in sight.

First, there are serious differences between the U.S. and Iran. The U.S. wants Iran to give up its nuclear program, while Iran stresses its right to peaceful nuclear energy. The U.S. wants Iran to abandon its missile program and change its regional policy, while Iran believes this has nothing to do with nuclear development and a deal should not have strings attached.

Second, the United States faces a dilemma. While it wants to de-escalate the Iranian nuclear issue (American scholar J.J. Mearsheimer even said the issue is a priority for U.S. foreign policy second only to China), the U.S. needs to leverage the nuclear deal to keep Iran in check and stabilize the Middle East, as well as to serve its own strategic needs of great power competition, which is the main reason why the U.S. may make certain concessions in the future.

The U.S. global strategy has pivoted to the Asia-Pacific and China. It clearly does not want to expend too many resources on the Iran issue. Yet the issue must be tamed and managed, moderated and controlled. Now the Middle East has lost the balance of power, Iraq is no longer able to check Iran and the U.S. needs to find some way to counter Iran, even as military means have proved futile and out of line with U.S. global strategy. In addition, the U.S. wants Iran to abandon any quest for nuclear weapons, but it doesn’t want to pay too much, so sanctions are an effective alternative for containment.

Now the U.S. has banned Iranian trade settlements through the SWIFT system and imposed sanctions on countries and companies that trade with Iran — a huge blow. From this perspective, the U.S. intends to use sanctions to coax and control Iran, along with applying a variety of flexible strategies to enforce sanctions. For example, it could release some dividends in phases, through humanitarian aid such as vaccines or medicine so that the situation can be eased in exchange for Iran’s freezing or suspension of nuclear development. The process of lifting Iranian sanctions could be a prolonged one to put Iran at the mercy of the U.S.

The U.S. aims to hold back other major powers through sanctions associated with Iran, as those may preclude substantial cooperation with Iran by others. So from the perspective of the great power game, the U.S. is also unlikely to fully lift sanctions against Iran, as it is a sophisticated move that involves patient maneuvering. In short, removing sanctions will not be easy, and negotiations could be prolonged. Talks per se might serve to ease the situation, which is a U.S. strategy, but substantial concessions from the U.S. are not expected.

Then there is the question of who will budge first. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has already drawn a strong backlash from hawkish elements, and conceding too much on the Iranian nuclear issue will likely trigger more resistance. So even if the U.S. intended to make concessions, it still has to put on a tough appearance. Iran may take full advantage of the U.S. eagerness to achieve detente.

Based on the above analysis, the author believes that diplomats from both sides need to achieve something on Nov. 29 so that a preliminary outcome will be reached in which both sides agree that negotiations are beneficial and will engage in further talks on humanitarian aid and the cessation of Iran’s nuclear program. The U.S. will demand Iran move first to stop its nuclear development.

How Iran will proceed with possible concessions? Would such concessions be acceptable to the U.S.?  Terminating or freezing uranium enrichment development would count as a major concession for Iran but it is also reversible. Because of Iran’s mistrust of the U.S., it is likely that it would only make concessions after the United States makes the first move. 

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