Expectations grow for a deal to emerge from Iran nuclear talks

After months of pessimism, both sides are speaking of progress and showing signs of flexibility, but time is short

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Enrique Mora speaks to journalists after a meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna on December 27, 2021. (ALEX HALADA / AFP)
Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Enrique Mora speaks to journalists after a meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna on December 27, 2021. (ALEX HALADA / AFP)

After weeks of doubts and mutual accusations of bad-faith negotiations, a newfound optimism is emanating from the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna. Notably, the US and France, which had sounded an increasingly dire tone as talks dragged on, are now decidedly more sanguine in their public statements.

Last Thursday, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said that the US was seeing “modest progress.”

“I remain convinced we can reach a deal. Bits of progress have been made in the last few days,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told French media the next day. “We have been heading in a positive direction in the last few days, but time is of the essence.”

Even Israeli officials are increasingly convinced a deal is on the way. On January 3, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told journalists that Israeli officials now believe an agreement will be reached.

Other indications are pointing in the same direction. South Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun visited Vienna last week to discuss with Tehran’s negotiators $7 billion in Iranian assets frozen in the country, which cannot be released without US approval.

Even Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the ultimate decision-maker on matters of strategic importance, seems to be hinting that a deal is in the works. “We will not surrender to pressure from the enemy, but negotiations and engagement with the enemy are another matter,” he said in a speech on Sunday.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in Tehran, Iran, July 28, 2021. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Khamenei’s intentions were a matter of speculation for months, with many commentators increasingly convinced he was merely playing for time in Vienna and had no intention of reaching an accord.

“I think it’s now quite clear that there is readiness to return to the agreement,” said Raz Zimmt, Iran scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Notably, even hardline press outlets in Iran have stopped criticizing the talks recently. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Khamenei, who in previous months spoke often about the talks, have mostly avoided doing so of late, another indication that they want to give space for the negotiations to succeed.

“In my estimation, there has been new flexibility shown,” Zimmt said. “It’s not that Iran is being more flexible and the West is not giving anything up. I think both sides are making compromises.”

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani leaves the Palais Coburg, venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) meeting that aims at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, in Vienna on December 27, 2021. (ALEX HALADA / AFP)

One major area where there is room for progress is an enhanced inspections regime of Iranian nuclear sites, said Caroline Rose of the Newlines Institute. “Iran might budge on that.”

Meanwhile, Iran is demanding sanctions relief and guarantees that the US will not walk away from the deal once again and reimpose sanctions.

The sanctions relief issue seems solvable. While Iranian officials used to demand the removal of all sanctions imposed by Donald Trump, they seem to be focusing now on the “illegal sanctions” that violate the original deal, and not other sanctions.

But a solution to those sanctions could be found as well, said Rose. “I do see a bit of wiggle room on certain Iranian individuals and also on Iran’s oil sector,” she said.

This photo from March 12, 2017, shows an Iranian oil facility on Kharg Island, on the shore of the Persian Gulf. (AFP Photo/Atta Kenare)

Commitments from US President Joe Biden about the policy of a potential Republican successor are a bigger problem, but this issue also might not be the obstacle it once was. The sides could avoid any legal guarantees by Biden, and instead focus on technical agreements that would ensure Iran continued access to certain assets and protect deals signed by international companies with Iran after a new agreement in case the US again withdraws.

Iran’s flexibility in the talks comes from two sources, argued Zimmt. First, the government feels it can make a credible case both domestically and internationally that it is extracting concessions from the West, because of its tougher negotiating stance compared to that of the previous Hassan Rouhani administration.

Second, there seems to be growing confidence in Tehran that Iran can live without an agreement if it needs to. “Then if they do go back to the [deal], they can present it not as giving in, but ‘we simply achieved what we wanted to achieve,'” said Zimmt.

One example of this confidence is the 2022 state budget proposal submitted by Raisi to the Majlis in December, which envisions economic growth while assuming that US sanctions remain in place.

US President Joe Biden, right, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left. (AP/Alex Brandon / Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)

Negotiations to restore the 2015 agreement began earlier this year but stopped in June as Iran elected a new ultra-conservative government. They resumed in late November with the latest round getting underway in late December.

The deal had offered Iran much-needed relief from sanctions that have weighed heavily on its economy.

The question now is whether, even with the signs of progress, the sides will be able to strike a deal before Iran’s enrichment and other advances render the deal moot.

Le Drian warned last week that “time was running out,” while Price said that a deal would have to be reached in a matter of weeks.

But not everyone believes talks will end in the near future if steady progress is being made.

“War could change things, but the US and [France, Germany and the United Kingdom] don’t want that, especially with what’s going on regarding Russia and Ukraine,” said George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “So why couldn’t talks drag on?”

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