‘Back to square one almost’: Iran talks end with no clear progress
European diplomats say new Iranian proposals ‘walk back almost all of the difficult compromises crafted’ to date, ‘unclear how these new gaps can be closed in a realistic timeframe.’
Iran nuclear talks which resumed this week in Vienna ended today (Dec. 3) with American and European diplomats saying it was not clear if the gaps opened up by the new Iran negotiating team could be closed in a reasonable timeframe. Iran this month has begun using advanced centrifuges to pursue 20% uranium enrichment at the underground Fordow facility, shortening its assessed ‘breakout’ time to about a month currently, and rapidly going down.
“What we've seen in the last couple of days, is that Iran, right now, does not seem to be serious about doing what's necessary to return to compliance, which is why we ended this round of talks in Vienna,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said today.
European diplomats say after the new Iranian Raisi administration waited five months to agree to resume nuclear talks, its proposed changes to a text crafted over six previous rounds of talks walked “back almost all of the difficult compromises crafted after many months of hard work.”
Written proposals submitted by new lead Iran nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani to the other parties in the deal on Thursday on the nuclear commitments Iran would take to resume full implementation of the pact and what US sanctions they would expect to be lifted take the parties “back to square one almost,” a senior European diplomat told Diplomatic.
“Disappointed and concerned after thoroughly and carefully analyzing Iranian proposed changes to the text negotiated during the previous rounds of Vienna talks,” senior diplomats from the three European (E3) parties to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the UK, France and Germany, said in a statement to the press after the talks ended in Vienna today.
“Tehran is walking back almost all of the difficult compromises crafted after many months of hard work,” the E3 diplomats continued. “Major changes demanded.”
“Over five months ago, Iran interrupted negotiations,” they said. “Since then, Iran has fast-forwarded its nuclear program. This week, it has back-tracked on diplomatic progress made.”
It is “unclear how these new gaps can be closed in a realistic timeframe on the basis of Iranian drafts,” they said.
The E3 diplomats said they have asked EU coordinator Enrique Mora to reconvene the parties shortly. Meantime, they say, there is a need for the delegations to return to capitals, to assess the situation and seek instructions, “before reconvening next week to see whether gaps can be closed or not.”
Increasing pessimism on whether the deal can be revived comes, ironically, as there has been a somewhat extraordinary recent rethinking in Israel about the wisdom of its past strident advocacy against the nuclear deal, which limited Iran’s nuclear program to lower level enrichment for energy use and put it under the most stringent monitoring and verification regime by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the world.
“No one had thought about how we would stop Iran after the withdrawal from the deal,” an Israeli official told Ha’aretz’s Raviv Drucker last month.
Cheered on by then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then US President Trump quit the Iran nuclear pact in 2018, which Iran had been complying with for three years, and re-imposed harsh US sanctions, as part of his “maximum pressure” campaign. Iran since 2019 has been progressively exceeding the pact’s nuclear limits, to protest the lack of sanctions relief it was receiving.
Since a month after Biden was inaugurated last January, his administration has been trying to get to the table to work out an understanding with Iran on how the US could return to the deal and Iran could return to full implementation. But the talks did not get seriously started until last April, and the pro-engagement Iranian President Hassan Rouhani—whose administration had originally negotiated the deal—left office over the summer, replaced by conservative skeptics of engagement with the west.
One issue that has become a sticking point in the talks is that the US, after Trump, can no longer credibly offer to negotiate a deal that a future US administration of the other party will uphold. Iran, meantime, is unsure it wants to subject itself to the yo-yo of sanctions relief that may just be yanked away in a few years.
“Political divisions and instability in the US have made it increasingly difficult for the US government to keep its word and respect its international agreements, which in turn has eroded the bargaining power of sanctions,” Iran analyst Trita Parsi wrote today.
Israeli officials, meantime, while increasingly publicly acknowledging that leaving the deal was a catastrophe, are currently pressing the Europeans and US not to make any interim deal with Iran, under which Iran would receive limited sanctions relief for suspending its most concerning nuclear activities. The Israelis are also pressing European governments and the US for a credible military threat against Iran.
“The most embarrassing thing for us is being told by our interlocutors more or less the same thing when we lay out the threat Iran currently poses,” an Israeli diplomatic source told Israeli journalist Ben Caspit in a piece published by Al-Monitor Nov. 30. “They say, ‘What do you want from us? You were the ones who convinced Trump to exit the nuclear agreement — it was Netanyahu. The Iranians started violating the agreement after the US left. This is the only reason we are where we are these days.’”
“The Israelis suggest moving forward rather than looking back and argue that the negotiations are only giving Iran more time to nuclearize,” Caspit continued.
While he opposed the deal when it was struck, former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said last month that Trump’s decision to withdraw from it was even worse, he told Haaretz in a piece published Nov. 21. “The main mistake of the last decade,” the former Israeli defense chief called Trump’s decision to quit the deal.
Israel needs to take a more realistic approach on Iran, argued former Israeli military intelligence Iran analyst Danny Citrinowicz.
“I understand the importance of sounding tough and constantly saying ‘Iran is bad, Iran is bad,’ but when you are constantly shouting unrealistic demands, then you won’t be considered to be someone that can really contribute to the international debate,” Citrinowicz told the Times of Israel in an interview published this week.
“It took two…years…for the men who worked closest to Netanyahu in those critical moments – his former Mossad chief, defense minister and top general – to publicly acknowledge that it was all a big lie,” Haaretz’s Amir Tibon wrote in a stunning piece on Nov. 25, “Three Years Late, Israelis Finally Hear the Truth About Trump.”
“Trump’s Iran policy…ended in failure,” Tibon continued. “Iran was closer to nuclear military capability on the day he left office than it was when he first entered the White House.”