On Nov. 29, after a nearly half-year hiatus, the Iran nuclear negotiations restarted in Vienna.
Well, sort of.
The Iranians, led by a newly elected hard-line government, refuse to negotiate directly with the Americans, so European intermediaries need to relay each side's positions.
And among the first positions the Iranians claimed in a Financial Times commentary was that the very term "nuclear negotiations" was "rife with error." Instead, wrote Ali Bagheri Kani, a deputy foreign minister who's leading the Iranian side, the talks' primary objective is "to gain a full, guaranteed and verifiable removal of the sanctions that have been imposed on the Iranian people."
That's a nonstarter for the Biden administration, which wants the U.S. and Iran to return to the terms of the 2015 pact known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. But Biden knows, especially after the justifiable domestic and geopolitical blowback from the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, that giving up more for less is unacceptable.
The reason for the restart of talks is the Trump administration's unilateral withdrawal from an accord agreed upon not just by Iran and the U.S., but the U.K., France, Germany, the European Union, China and Russia. However imperfect the pact was, even the Trump administration acknowledged that Iran was in compliance with the strict terms of the deal — albeit continuing its regionally destabilizing, malevolent behavior in multiple nearby nations like Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Syria.
After abiding by the JCPOA for a while after the U.S. withdrawal, Iran has ramped up its nuclear program and is now much closer to being able to break out to deployment if it chooses to do so. According to the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has built more modern centrifuges than were allowed under the nuclear deal and has blocked previously negotiated IAEA inspection access to sensitive sites.
Iran has also somewhat mitigated the sanctions by selling oil on the open market, particularly to China, in violation of the sanctions. Economic conditions are as harsh as the theocracy itself. But the country has survived and the government has extinguished most of the internal dissent necessary to force Tehran to make the external concessions that would allow it to come back into compliance with the deal.
Iran's nuclear and diplomatic advances may lead it to believe it has an advantage. But that's not true, according to Robert Malley, the U.S. envoy leading the talks. He told the BBC recently that "if Iran thinks it can use this time to build back more leverage and then come back and say they want something better, it simply won't work. We and our partners won't go for it."
Nor should they. But the alternative, if the administration hews to its pledge that Iran will not be allowed to become a nuclear state, is limited, short of warfare — which, after the debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, would likely have scant public support in America.
The restart of negotiations is "a positive step," Mark S. Bell, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, told an editorial writer. However, "there's a lot of work to be done to actually recreate a viable deal."
The fundamental problem, said Bell, an expert on nuclear proliferation, is that the U.S. withdrawal and Iran's ratcheting up of its program "means today, from a U.S. perspective, it's just a lot harder to recreate the conditions of a deal as stringent as the original. But it's also going to be very politically difficult for the Biden administration to sell a deal that is weaker than the original JCPOA. And so there's this fundamental diplomatic imbalance."
This imbalance may now be too fundamental, indeed too foundational, to forge forward. But as long as the U.S. and Iran are talking, there's still hope to avoid an outcome that would be tragic for both nations — and the world.