Washington Post | By Karen DeYoung & Kareem Fahim | September 21, 2021
Three months after the last meeting to negotiate a revival of the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, it remains unclear if and when the talks in Vienna will restart, or who might represent its new government.
In the interim, Iran has continued to expand the quantity and quality of its uranium enrichment, leading some experts to conclude it is now even closer to possessing enough fissile material to build a bomb than the two or three months the Biden administration has publicly estimated. At the same time, Iran has repeatedly sparred with the International Atomic Energy Agency over monitoring of its nuclear activities agreed in the 2015 deal.
For its part, the administration has continued to warn that negotiating time is running out, without saying how much is left or what it will do if it does. “We don’t have a timetable,” a senior State Department official said.
“Our position is that we’re ready to go back” to the table although “at some point, that won’t be possible any more, because their nuclear advances will become irreversible, and it simply will not be feasible to go back the deal” as it was initially negotiated. “We’ll know it when we see it,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive negotiations. “When we reach that point, we’ll have to assess where we are and how we proceed.”
Some answers may emerge this week, when the Tehran government says Iran’s new foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, plans to hold bilateral meetings with his counterparts from Britain, Germany and France at the annual United Nations General Assembly. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told reporters in New York on Tuesday that all were being told the Vienna talks would resume “in the next few weeks.”
In a prerecorded speech to the General Assembly later Tuesday, President Ebrahim Raisi declared ran “considers useful the talks whose ultimate outcome is the lifting of all oppressive sanctions,” but gave no indication of when the Vienna negotiations should restart.
Raisi devoted much of his relatively brief address to criticizing the United States and its sanctions policy, which he called a “new way of war with the rest of the world.” He repeated Iran’s insistence that nuclear weapons “have no place in our defense doctrine,” and are “forbidden” based on a religious decree by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader.
Speaking on Afghanistan, Raisi joined much of the world in calling on the Taliban to include others in their government. “If an inclusive government having an effective participation of all ethnicities shouldn’t emerge to run Afghanistan,” he said, “security will not be restored to the country. And like occupation, paternalism is also doomed to failure.”
The State Department has said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has no plans to meet with Amir-Abdollahian at the United Nations. Iran has no diplomatic relations with the United States, and has refused to speak with it directly at the Vienna talks, using the British, French and Germans as intermediaries. All four are original signers of the nuclear accord, along with China and Russia.
Robert Malley, the administration’s special envoy to the talks and lead U.S. negotiator, visited Moscow and Paris early this month to confirm that all of the signers remain on the same page in wanting to restart the deal under its original terms. “If they either don’t come back to the table any time soon, or they come back and adopt positions inconsistent” with those terms, “then the conclusion will impose itself … they want to continue with their nuclear program,” the State Department official said.
President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018 from the agreement, under which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear activities and submit to international monitoring in exchange for a lifting of U.S. and international economic sanctions. A year after Trump reimposed punitive sanctions, Iran restarted its high-level enrichment program. Tehran has said its activities are for research, and that it has no intention of building a nuclear weapon.
President Biden campaigned on a promise to negotiate a reentry into the deal, but talks that began in April were suspended by Iran in June, after the election of Raisi, a hardline cleric. His government has said it will continue pursuing the restoration of the agreement, but has displayed little of the urgency that the previous reformist government attached to the effort.
In one sign that Iran may be in no hurry, the government has begun replacing the negotiators that headed its team in Vienna. Longtime Iranian negotiator Abbas Araghchi has been replaced as deputy foreign minister by Ali Bagheri, a relative of Khamenei by marriage.
But it is not clear even if the new government plans to leave negotiations in the hands of the foreign ministry, or transfer it to the National Security Council, more fully under Khamenei’s control.
U.S. and European officials are concerned that Iran may backtrack on what was achieved during the first six rounds of talks. Negotiators believed they had reached tentative agreements on a list of sanctions that would be lifted and a possible sequence of actions each side would take for compliance.
“If it’s a different lead negotiator, and we still can’t talk directly to Iran, and they come with parameters that are fundamentally different from what we negotiated, it’s going to be difficult,” the State Department official said. “We hadn’t closed gaps even with the negotiators we were familiar with. If you change … those variables, it’s hard to see if this will happen quickly.”
Raisi has said little about the negotiations, other than confirming Iran wants to return to the table, while insisting that it will not succumb to Western “pressure” and wants sanctions lifted.
Even as it plays apparent hardball over resumption of the talks, Iran has tried to expand its economic and security horizons to the East and within its own region. It has continued to fortify traditional allies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, to which it recently sent shipments of diesel fuel, while also trying to bolster or repair ties with neighboring Arab countries and other Asian nations.
The strategy was a direct result of Iran’s disappointment with the nuclear deal and the economic crunch that resulted from the reimposition of sanctions. “Using this historical lesson and looking at our neighbors and Asia, we can solve economic problems and other problems,” Abbas Moghtadaei Khorasghani, deputy chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission in Iran’s parliament, wrote last week in the Hamshahri newspaper.
A linchpin of Iran’s new outlook, he said, was the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a powerful bloc of Eurasian countries, led by China and Russia, that work together on economic, cultural and security matters.
After years of trying, Iran was invited to be a full member of the group last week. “Hegemony and unilateralism are declining,” Raisi said in a speech to the bloc’s members at a summit Friday in Tajikistan. Sanctions and “economic terrorism,” he said, were a collective threat to all of them.
Iran’s strategy to blunt the impact of American sanctions has also included stepping up outreach to Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, that are allied with the United States, following years of abysmal relations that have destabilized the region.
“Iran is keen to have large-scale political and economic cooperation and convergence with the rest of the world,” Raisi told the United Nations on Tuesday. It wants “effective interaction with all of the countries of the world, especially with our neighbors, and shake their hands warmly.”
“A new era has begun,” he said.