Iran transition puts Vienna talks on hold

Iran President-Elect Raisi has sent two reps to join Iran committee reviewing Vienna negotiations to date

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (far left) and Iranian President-Elect Ebrahim Raisi foreign policy advisor Ali Baqeri (middle) watched as Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar met with Raisi in Tehran on July 8, 2021. Photo published in Iran’s Entekhab newspaper.

  • Iran transition consultations are seen as the cause of delay in resuming Vienna talks.

  • Iranian official says “colleagues are working hard to conclude the discussions so as to return to Vienna as soon as possible.”

  • “My expectation is that this can and will still come together. It was never going to be an easy process,” Eurasia Group’s Henry Rome.

  • Raisi foreign policy advisor Ali Baqeri accompanied Iran FM Zarif to meeting between Raisi and Indian FM Thursday.

International powers are waiting for Iran to complete internal consultations before resuming talks on trying to restore the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna, following Iran’s June 18 presidential elections.

Any expectations for swift progress in Vienna nuclear deal talks during the Iranian “lame-duck” period before Ebrahim Raisi’s inauguration in early August have been lowered, as Iran appears to have already moved deep into the transition period between the outgoing Hassan Rouhani and incoming Raisi administrations, and seeking to form internal consensus on how to proceed.

During a brief visit of the Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to Iran on Thursday (July 8), Raisi’s foreign policy advisor, Ali Baqeri (or Ali Bagheri Kani), was photographed sitting next to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of Iranian President-Elect Raisi’s meeting with India’s top diplomat.

Baqeri previously served as deputy Iranian national security advisor and nuclear negotiator from 2008 to 2013, under Saeed Jalili, during the Ahmadinejad administration. Iranian media have speculated that Baqeri may be nominated as Raisi’s foreign minister. Baqeri, who is related to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei by marriage, has also been leading Raisi’s team in charge of the transition at Iran’s Foreign Ministry.

Raisi, meantime, has sent two representatives to join an Iranian committee tasked with reviewing the Vienna deal negotiations, and forging consensus on next steps.

The “implementation” committee now includes, according to an Iranian media source: Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Ali Shamkhani; Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) chief Ali Akbar Salehi; Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, and Iran’s chief negotiator at the Vienna talks, Abbas Araghchi; Second Vice-speaker of the parliament Abdolreza Mesri (from the presidium of the parliament); the Chairman of the Iranian Parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee Vahid Jalalzadeh; as well as the two recent additions representing Raisi: Baqeri and Ali Hoseini Tash, currently Shamkhani’s deputy at the SNSC. Amwaj reports that also a member is hardline MP Mojtaba Zolnour, previous head of the parliamentary national security and foreign policy committee, and formerly the supreme leader’s deputy representative to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

While the transition consultations may have slowed down the resumption of Vienna talks, it seems unlikely that Raisi’s team would decide to reverse course and walk away from the talks to try to conclude a deal on restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), said Iran economic expert Esfandyar Batmanghelidj.

“They don’t have the impetus to change policy” because, under the status quo, “they are already under maximum pressure,” Batmanghelidj, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and founder of the BourseBazaar Foundation, told me. “The policy choice lies with Iran.”

While there might be a concern that, “ideologically speaking, maybe the status quo is comfortable for some of the people around Raisi,” Batmanghelidj continued, “still, it would be extraordinary—a black swan incident –if they decided, after this enormous effort to keep the deal limping along, [to walk away]. The point is, Raisi and his administration, and the establishment in Iran have a choice now, and there is a reasonable expectation that they will choose to be pragmatic.”

“It is not yet time to panic,” Batmanghelidj added. “I think the personnel changes and management of the transition are probably the main reason” for Iran’s delay in returning to Vienna.

Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia group, said he does not see a big difference if a deal is concluded before or shortly after Raisi takes over in August.

“His [Raisi’s] people are involved in these negotiations from afar, and whether it is nailed down while Rouhani is president or not is not a big determinant in the success of the deal,” Rome told me. “I think the biggest constraint here is the ticking clock on breakout time, and how much Iran’s nuclear advancements progress and the…deadline of the inauguration is not as significant. From where I sit, the nuclear clock is more important than the political transition clock.”

“I think Rouhani and his team have been severely constrained throughout the [Vienna] process, and even more so now,” Rome continued. “And this committee that is chewing through all of this in Tehran—that is what is taking time.”

“My assumption is that there is still enough momentum and interest on all sides to get back into the deal this year,” Rome said. “My expectation is that this can and will still come together. It was never going to be an easy process. Getting back into the deal is harder than it looks. [However], the main drivers that would push the Iranians to make the decision to are still very strong.”

An Iranian official said he expects the Vienna discussions to resume –but he does not know when.

“I don’t know when all sides are ready to resume the talks,” the Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told me. “I know that my colleagues… are working hard to conclude the discussions so as to return to Vienna as soon as possible.”

The State Department also said that a resumption of the Vienna talks awaited the Iranians.

“I would need to direct you to the Iranians for feedback on their consultations,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said at the department briefing July 6. “I can tell you from our part, the team has been back here at the department meeting with officials throughout the building, including with Secretary Blinken, updating him on the progress of those talks.”

“Nothing is certain in the world of diplomacy, but I think we have every expectation that there will be a seventh round of talks at the appropriate moment,… and our team looks forward to being engaged in that next round of talks when it does begin,” Price added.

Outgoing Iranian president Rouhani, speaking at a cabinet meeting this week, said it was mostly up to Iran to decide if it wanted to complete the Vienna deal and how long it would take.

“We can make a decision this week and end [the sanctions],” Rouhani said at a cabinet meeting on July 7. “Or they can continue for months.”

“We are hearing Rouhani saying, basically the deal is in Iran’s hands right now,” Sina Toossi, an Iran expert at the National Iranian American Council said, adding he hopes the parties don’t miss the July window for making progress.

“I think it [a reentry deal] will happen,” Trita Parsi, an Iran expert at the Quincy Institute, said. In part, because “neither side has a good Plan B.”