Iran talks break til next week, citing progress, need for political decisions

'The point in time for taking decisions is getting closer and closer,' European diplomats.

EU political director Enrique Mora speaks to journalists following a Joint Commission meeting on restoring the Iran nuclear deal outside the Grand Hotel in Vienna on June 2. Photo posted by Austrian Ambassador Arad Benkö to Twitter.

The European Union coordinator of international talks on restoring the Iran nuclear deal expressed hope at the conclusion of a fifth round of talks in Vienna today (June 2) that a deal could be possible at the next round, set to get underway later next week. The next meeting, reportedly set to resume around June 10, is just a week before Iran presidential elections, in which most other viable candidates to the conservative judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi have been blocked from running.

“As coordinator, I had wished that this was the final round,” European Union political director Enrique Mora told journalists outside the Grand Hotel in Vienna this evening at the conclusion of the fifth round of talks. “That was not the case, but we will continue working and I'm sure that the next round will be the one in which we will finally get a deal and we will bring back the United States to the JCPOA and Iran to full implementation of its commitments.”

“This is a complex process with political decisions with rather technical issues,” Mora continued. “Now we are reaching a point in which we have to face the heart of these issues."

“Next week we will reconvene and I hope that it will not take a lot of time to have an agreement,” he said.

Diplomats from the three European parties to the 2015 Iran nuclear pact, the UK, France, and Germany, cited further progress at the talks, but the need for decisions to be taken soon.

"We have made further progress and important aspects of a future agreement have been worked out. However, the most difficult decisions still lie ahead of us,” the E3 diplomats said in a statement to the Wall Street Journal’s Laurence Norman.

"We are all aware that no-one has time on their side,” the E3 diplomats continued. “The point in time for taking decisions is getting closer and closer. We will continue the talks next week."

Iran’s chief negotiator at the talks, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, cited the need for consultations with capitals.

“The next round of the talks in Vienna, logically, could and should be the final round,” Araghchi told Iranian broadcaster IRIB tonight, according to Iranian journalist Abas Aslani. “We decided to have a week for break and consultations”.

“All delegations concluded that the delegates should return to their respective capitals for consultations and further decision-making on disputes," Araghchi told Iranian media ahead of the Joint Commission meeting today.

"All the delegations are determined and there is complete seriousness,” Araghchi continued. “Disputes have reached a point where everyone believes that it is not impossible to resolve.”

“Progress is there, [but] political decisions are needed,” another diplomat at the talks, speaking not for attribution, told me.

The US delegation, led by envoy Rob Malley, is set to return to Washington by the end of the week, State Department Principal Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter told journalists on a briefing call today, declining to provide a more detailed update until its return.

With the outcome of Iran’s presidential election seemingly pre-ordained in favor of Raisi, some analysts wondered if that would give the Iranian delegation in Vienna more maneuvering space to be able to make the final decisions needed to finalize an accord, because a deal before the elections now seemingly cannot benefit moderates or reformists in the elections. But that does not seem to have happened yet.

“Compared to the last round, they [the parties] have been able to resolve some issues, but still some significant differences remain,” an Iran expert who consults closely with the US delegation told me. “That probably means a breakthrough is unlikely to happen prior to the Iranian elections.”’

As for what the possible election—or “selection”—of Raisi might mean for the fate of the JCPOA and possible follow on talks, some Iran experts suggested that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s endorsement of the Vienna negotiations and the agreement is key.

“I have no doubt that Raisi is not a fan of the JCPOA and negotiating with the West,” the expert said. “He is selected to become Iran president for one reason: that he is completely subservient to the Supreme Leader. If the Supreme Leader wants the negotiations to continue….Raisi will be the vehicle for it….The way the stage was set for his selection, he would have to be completely subservient to the Supreme Leader. If the Supreme Leader wants negotiations to continue and to deescalate tensions in the region, he may force Raisi to choose a foreign minister who projects a softer image.”

“I think what they are doing now, is consolidating internally, to make sure they can manage [the transition from Khamenei],” the expert continued. “As part of that consolidation, they want de-escalation both with the US and with the region. A more monolithic Iranian system (dominated by conservatives), might be more amenable to dealing with the US, and less bogged down by infighting.”

“I think they are going to keep the JCPOA,” Iran scholar Sina Azodi told me, of the Iranians. “I think the policy they have determined, for a variety of reasons, is to keep the JCPOA.”

Iranian policymakers see not just financial benefits but political benefits in the agreement, he said.

“The issue for Tehran is not about reaching agreement, but who can take credit for it,” which affects the timing of potentially reaching a deal, Azodi, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said. “Conservatives want to be able to say, ‘we brought you prosperity.’”

Following Iran presidential elections in June, there is a transition period, and the new Iranian presidential administration takes over in August.

A spokesman for Iran’s government suggested Tuesday that restoration of the JCPOA may take until August.

“We’re close to an understanding over principal, nuclear issues,” Iran government spokesman Ali Rabiei told journalists at a televised news conference on Tuesday, Bloomberg News reported. “Some differences such as Trump’s sanctions and Iran’s measures need to be worked out.”

“I would say, at this point, I don’t think that the election is necessarily impacting the Vienna talks,” Sina Toossi, a researcher at the National Iranian American Council told me. “The main worry for conservative forces in Iran was that [Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif would have run.”

But now “Zarif is out of the picture, [outgoing Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani is debilitated, and the Guardian Council has brazenly rigged the election to exclude this set,” Toossi said, calling the disqualifications ahead of this election a real inflection point in Iran.