Iran notifies parties won’t resume Vienna talks before August

Iranian delay in returning to Vienna talks could indicate Raisi team believes they can negotiate a better deal.

  • Iran has informed the European coordinator that it will not be ready to resume Vienna negotiations until after Raisi inaugurated in early August, a senior US official said.

  • Talks now not expected to resume before mid-August, a western official indicated.

  • “We are ready to go if and when the Iranians signal they are as well,” State Department spokesman. But “this process is not indefinite. There will come a point where our calculus will change.”

  • Iranian delay in returning to Vienna could indicate Raisi team believes they can negotiate a better deal, said the Crisis Group’s Ali Vaez.

  • “They are stepping into this with optimism that they will be able to negotiate from a position of strength better,” he said.

Iran has formally notified the European coordinator that it will not be ready to return to negotiations on possibly restoring full compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in Vienna until after Ebrahim Raisi is inaugurated in early August, a senior U.S. administration official said on the sidelines of a diplomatic reception tonight.

The United States has said the last couple weeks that it understands that Iran is undergoing a transition after its June 18 presidential elections and that the U.S. negotiating team will be prepared to return to Vienna when Iran has completed its internal consultations. But it has started to caution that the process will not be open indefinitely.

“We were prepared to continue negotiating, but the Iranians requested more time to deal with their presidential transition,” a State Department spokesperson said tonight, in response to a query about Iran saying it won’t be ready to return to Vienna before August.

“We remain interested in seeking mutual return to compliance with the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] JCPOA, though as the Secretary has made clear, this offer will not be on the table indefinitely,” the official continued. “When Iran is done with its process, we are prepared to plan our return to Vienna to continue with our talks.”

The Vienna talks are not expected to resume before mid-August, another westen official indicated tonight.

Some Senators were downbeat after Secretary of State Antony Blinken was on Capitol Hill today briefing them about the status of the Iran talks, CNN reported.

Senators Chris Coons (D-Delaware) and Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) “don’t sound optimistic coming out of a @SecBlinken briefing on the Iran deal talks,” CNN’s Kylie Atwood tweeted, citing CNN’s Jeremy Herb’s reporting. “Coons said getting back into the deal was always a daunting challenge.”

While some Iran analysts have surmised that the incoming Raisi team may seek to pursue the Vienna talks as a way to bolster his legitimacy after a controversial election that eliminated most viable other candidates in advance, others see more worrying signs.

Some of Raisi’s entourage, and the hard-line security agencies he is aligned with, seem to believe that they can negotiate a better deal by ratcheting up their nuclear program as negotiating leverage to extract further concessions, said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group.

“It is pretty clear now that the Raisi administration wants to have a different approach towards the negotiations,” Vaez told me today. “I don’t think this delay is only because they want to basically get the credit for restoring the deal and reaping the economic benefits. I think it is indicative of the fact that they-–and the deep state that they represent--are dissatisfied with where the negotiations are.”

“I think they have come to the conclusion --and by they, I mean the deep state, not just Raisi and his entourage--that what is on the offer [in Vienna] is really not attractive to them; and time is on their side and in the matter of a few weeks or a few months, they would have enough leverage to extract more concessions,” he continued.

One reason the Raisi team may not have wanted the deal on offer after six rounds of talks in Vienna to be approved is they were afraid it could be interpreted by the US as a sign of Iranian weakness and they don’t want that impression to overshadow the beginning of the Raisi presidency, Vaez said.

But the incoming Iranian team could also be badly miscalculating, Vaez warned.

“If Iran thinks that it can ratchet up its nuclear program much more quickly than the West can respond –and this would change the dynamic – [and enable concessions that the west was previously reluctant to consider under the Rouhani administration], it is a major miscalculation,” he said.

“I am a little surprised by how much foot dragging we suddenly saw after the [Iranian] elections,” Dina Esfandiary, an Iran analyst with the Crisis Group, told me.

Among the possible interpretations, she said, was that “some of the conservatives want the glory for themselves, or they think they can do a better  job and squeeze them [the West] a little more.”

It is also possible, she said, that the Raisi team “want the added legitimacy that goes with talking with the world powers from the outset.”

Vaez said he foresees two possible scenarios for how the Raisi team proceeds on the Vienna talks.

“Either the Raisi team will come in and begin negotiations pretty quickly to try to get a marginally better agreement than what was on offer during the sixth round, and in that case, they would be able to restore the deal and reap the economic benefits,” he said.

“Or, they would decide this is not good enough and engage in this dangerous game of brinksmanship, which I think is almost guaranteed to render the JCPOA moot…and push both sides into cycles of escalation until they are ready to negotiate an entirely new agreement,” he said. 

“But they are miscalculating if they think, because [they assess] that Biden doesn’t want war, and wants to focus on Asia and US domestic issues, so if we ratchet up our nuclear program…in a matter of a few weeks the West would be ready to basically back off,” he said. “They are not looking at it as the beginning of a lengthy and dangerous confrontation that will be very costly for them as well.”

“They are stepping into this with optimism that they will be able to negotiate from a position of strength better,” he said.

Earlier today, the State Department reiterated its interest in returning to the talks, but pressed for the process to resume soon.

“There will come a point where our calculus will change, where the gains that Iran is able to make in its nuclear program… outweigh the benefit that the international community would accrue from a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told journalists at the department briefing today (July 14), which is the sixth anniversary of reaching the nuclear pact, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“We’re not there yet, but that is why we believe we should… return to Vienna for these talks just as soon as we can,” Price said.