Vienna dispatch: Subdued Iran talks head to endgame in shadow of Russian war on Ukraine
"We believe if Iran shows seriousness, we can and should reach an understanding on mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA…potentially within days,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said.
Vienna __ Even before the Russian attack on Ukraine got underway overnight, there was a subdued atmosphere here at what is expected to be the last stretch of talks to see if the 2015 Iran nuclear deal can be restored, four years after Trump quit the pact.
Iran’s chief negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Ali Bagheri, traveled back to Tehran late Wednesday (Feb. 23) at what was described by one European negotiator as a short trip to seek Iranian endorsement for the draft document.
“He has to go Thursday to Tehran for 1-2 days for final endorsement,” the European official said.
Lead Chinese negotiator Wang Qun said he expected Bagheri to return to Vienna by the end of the week.
“We think it really comes to the last stage, the stage for the finishing line,” Wang Qun, China’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told me as he was leaving a meeting of the representatives of the P5+1 at the Marriott Vienna Wednesday evening. “It is time for political judgment and a time for political decision.”
The Chinese negotiator said there were some small “sticking points” that should be overcome to finalize restoration of the deal, but he did not specify which ones they are, or who should compromise to overcome there.
French political director and lead Iran talks negotiator Philippe Errera tweeted a photo of the cover of a draft “Decision of the Joint Commission,” that seems to be the document that, if approved, would be adopted by the seven-member body that oversees implementation of the nuclear pact, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Then US President Trump quit the deal in 2018 and imposed crippling economic sanctions on Iran, though Iran had been complying with the accord since it came into force in 2016. In response, Iran since 2019 has been progressively exceeding the deal’s nuclear limits to protest the lack of sanctions relief it was receiving and entitled to under the deal.
The Biden administration, since late February 2021, has said it would return the United States to the deal if Iran would agree to return to its full implementation. But talks on what steps each side would take to restore the deal did not get underway until April, and went into a long hiatus in June after Iranian presidential elections that replaced the pro-engagement Hassan Rouhani administration with the more conservative, hardline Ebrahim Raisi. Talks on restoring the deal did not resume until late November, and got off to a rocky re-start, before gaining traction.
Multiple parties, including the White House, have cited “substantial progress” in the talks in recent weeks.
“There is significant progress being made, and we are close to a possible deal,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the White House press briefing on Wednesday (Feb. 23). “But there are a number of very difficult issues that remain unresolved. And there's very little time remaining to reach a deal given the pace of Iran's nuclear advances.”
“We believe if Iran shows seriousness, we can and should reach an understanding on mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA … potentially within days,” Psaki said. “But there is still more work that needs to be done.”
“We are encouraged by the significant progress, but, having been through a few of these, I would note that, often, the most difficult negotiations happen in the… last portion,” Psaki said.
Lead Iranian negotiator Bagheri, for his part, seemingly sought to temper expectations of Iran’s willingness to make last minute compromises.
“No matter how close we get to the finish line, there is not necessarily a guarantee to cross it,” Bagheri tweeted today.
Meantime, some Washington experts and an administration source said they now believe it is likely that the agreement on restoring the deal, if reached, will trigger the requirement for Congressional review under INARA legislation, as first reported by the Washington Post.
“If an agreement to restore the JCPOA is achieved, we may well be heading to a full Congressional review under INARA, given that reentry will require the undoing doing of steps that resulted from Trump’s abrogation of the deal, and therefore by their nature are not covered in the text of the 2015 pact,” Dylan J. Williams, Senior Vice President for Policy and Strategy of the center-left group J-Street, told me by email.
“We’re hoping to block a resolution of disapproval from ever reaching the president’s desk in the first place by ensuring that at least 41 Senators support the deal,” Williams said.
A Washington observer of Congressional foreign policy issues said the administration expected the agreement to survive any Congressional review.
“I think the administration is confident that the agreement will survive review under INARA,” the expert, speaking not for attribution, said. “At the end of the day, they only need one-third (plus one member) of one chamber to back the deal for it to survive.”
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