‘Time is running out’: Europeans warn prospects for restoring Iran deal slipping away
‘No real progress’ at Iran talks so far, a European negotiator said, as European diplomats said precious time is being lost and no real negotiations yet underway
European powers to the Iran nuclear deal said Monday (Dec. 13) that as of now, they have still not been able to get down to real negotiations.
Talks on trying to restore U.S. and Iranian full implementation of the Iran nuclear deal that resumed in Vienna on Dec. 9 have made no real progress so far, even after Russia tried to broker a compromise, European negotiators said.
“As of this moment, we still have not been able to get down to real negotiations,” senior diplomats from the three European parties to the deal, Britain, France and Germany (the E3), said in a press statement from Vienna on Monday (Dec. 13).
“We are losing precious time dealing with new Iranian positions inconsistent with the JCPOA or that go beyond it,” the E3 diplomats said, referring to the acronym for the formal name of the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). “This is frustrating because the outlines of a comprehensive and fair agreement …is clearly visible—and has been so since last summer.”
“But time is running out,” they said. “Without swift progress, in light of Iran’s fast forwarding of its nuclear program, the JCPOA will very soon become an empty shell.”
Russia had tried to broker a compromise under which the new Iran nuclear negotiating team led by Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani would agree to work off a draft text from June crafted over six previous rounds of talks, while giving consideration to some of its new demands. But the new Iranian negotiating team’s positions are so overreaching, the talks can’t move forward, western sources say.
“The Vienna talks will proceed from drafts elaborated by June 20 (the end of the sixth round),” Russia’s lead negotiator and ambassador to the IAEA Mikhail Ulyanov wrote on Twitter Dec. 9. “But the new Iranian ideas must be properly discussed and thoroughly considered.”
But the attempt to broker a compromise between the new and old texts doesn’t work because the new Iranian government’s far-reaching demands on sanctions relief, reticence on what nuclear steps Iran would take to come back into compliance, and other demands, blow up the give-and-take compromises made in the six earlier rounds of talks, said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group.
“The problem is, if you want to bring in the points from the recent Iran draft into the June draft, it basically completely destroys the balance of give and take,” said Vaez, who met with negotiators in Vienna in recent days. “It pockets all the concessions the West made, asks for more, and walks back the ones Iran tentatively offered.”
“The reality is, the new Iranian proposal is so far-fetched, there is no way you can add those ideas into the text,” Vaez continued. “Everything that has been negotiated, would now be reopened. So there is a never-ending process.”
The inter-agency US negotiating team, led by Special Envoy Rob Malley, arrived in Vienna on Sunday. The State Department said Monday it was still too soon to tell whether Iran returned to Vienna with a more constructive approach.
Then US President Trump quit the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, and imposed harsh sanctions on Iran as part of his “maximum pressure” campaign. Iran since 2019 has been progressively exceeding the deal’s limits to protest the lack of sanctions relief it was receiving.
Since about a month after taking office last January, the Biden administration has sought to work out an understanding on how the US and Iran would return to full compliance with the deal. But talks did not get going until April and still had some gaps remaining when they broke off in June for Iranian elections that ended the two terms of the Rouhani administration which had negotiated the deal.
The new more conservative Ebrahim Raisi government did not return to the talks on restoring the deal until November 29, then issued proposals asking for the lifting of sanctions imposed beyond the nuclear deal, walked back potential Iranian solutions on restoring nuclear limits, and sought compensation and guarantees that go beyond the JCPOA, negotiators said.
The new Iranian government has meantime dragged its feet on letting the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] restore cameras at the Karaj centrifuge workshop that was badly damaged in a suspected Israeli sabotage attack in June. Iran also when talks resumed around Dec. 1 started using advanced IR-6 centrifuges to enrich uranium to 20% at the underground Fordo facility, shortening Iran’s current ‘breakout’ time to a month, and rapidly going down. Reports suggest it may be preparing a satellite launch.
The IAEA is increasingly worried that it would not be able to detect a potential Iranian effort to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon in time, western analysts say, although CIA Director Bill Burns said this month it has seen no evidence that Iran has made a decision to produce a nuclear weapon. Even if it produced enough highly enriched fissile material, it would take Iran a year or two to produce a nuclear weapon, experts say.
Intense diplomatic efforts, including by the Russians, are underway to try work out an agreement between the IAEA and Iran that would restore access that could reduce some of those concerns.
But it seems that a breach could come between the Russians and Chinese on one side, and the US and Europeans on the other, over who is to blame for the failure of efforts to try to restore the Iran nuclear deal.
“We prefer a different diplomatic approach,” a Russian official said.