The objective of the talks under way in the Austrian capital of Vienna is to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement – known as the JCPOA – between Iran on the one side and China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US on the other. They cannot be viewed in isolation, however, as they play a role in any American-European and European-Russian negotiations that are currently focused on resolving the crisis in Ukraine.
Ukraine – which was a part of the Russian empire and, like Russia, a former Soviet republic thereafter – seeks to join Nato, a US-led western security alliance created more than seven decades ago as a bulwark against the Soviet-led communist bloc. Moscow fears Nato’s increasing post-Cold War influence in Eastern Europe and aims to stop it in its tracks. The immediate priority of the West, therefore, is to reach an agreement with Russia that will determine Europe’s security architecture for years to come.
While diplomats are working overnight to find a rapprochement on that front, there is also a sense that the Vienna talks need to arrive at a conclusion – either positive or negative – by the end of February. There is newfound optimism that an accord can be reached, which could shift Iran’s relations with the West in a positive direction. There have even been reports of direct American-Iranian meetings being held secretly.
Led by new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Berlin is playing an important role in trying to resolve both the Ukraine and Iran issues. The Russians view Germany as being instrumental for many reasons, not least the latter’s determination to ensure Russian gas supplies to Europe continue. The Iranians view Germany as a relatively friendly power that is leading a European bid to pressure the Biden administration to offer more concessions to Iran in return for the revival of the JCPOA. Last week, Mr Scholz went to Washington to meet US President Joe Biden. Now – amid fears that Russian troops will soon march into Ukraine – he is heading to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Meanwhile, Mr Biden and Mr Putin had a phone conversation to discuss the Ukraine crisis. As things appear, diplomacy will be carried out in full swing at least until the Beijing Winter Olympics end on February 20, or perhaps until the Paralympics conclude in March. Moscow, after all, has no desire to rain on China’s parade, particularly as it needs Chinese support in confronting the West. What happens thereafter is anyone’s guess. Iran, too, being Russia’s strategic partner, is preparing for both escalation and de-escalation. This is where the Vienna talks come in.
The eighth round of negotiations has reached its final stages, following which both the Iranians and the Europeans seem optimistic. There is talk that the Biden administration could agree to lifting 90 per cent of America’s sanctions on Iran, particularly on its ability to sell its oil and gas. This couldn’t happen soon enough for Iran, as the resumption of its biggest exports will give its economy a much-needed boost. Another sticking point is the US’s insistence that it be given access to Tehran’s nuclear programme; to this, the Iranian regime says the IAEA, the global nuclear watchdog, already has access. Other proposals include maintaining sanctions on the nuclear programme for a limited time, say for about six months, during which the international community determines whether Tehran is or isn’t importing prohibited material under the guise of procuring technology necessary for its so-called peaceful programme.
Russia is keen to have sanctions lifted on Iran’s exports and imports, notably on its ability to buy weapons. Iran also has China's support, with the two sides engaging in a limited oil trade. The Chinese-Iranian-Russian grouping largely agrees on the substance of Iran’s demands.
The Europeans, too, are keen to on a deal, considering how much their own businesses stand to benefit from Iran’s integration into the global economy. They seem unperturbed by the Iranian regime’s malign behaviour in the Middle East, which involves exporting its so-called revolution to the Arab world. In fact, the Europeans continue to believe – without evidence – that the JCPOA will moderate Iran’s regional behaviour, even though the deal didn’t do anything of the sort after it was signed in 2015.
Mr Biden’s own willingness to conclude a deal he helped to secure with Iran, when he was Barack Obama’s vice president in 2015, could face opposition from the US Congress, which could force a vote on it. While Mr Biden’s Democrats have control of the legislature, political headwinds in an election year bring with them their own complications. And it’s highly unlikely that the Biden team will try to circumvent Congress by securing a deal during its February 21-25 recess, as some have speculated, given the political ramifications of such a move for the administration.
In all this, one should not underestimate the role Israel may be playing in these talks, even though it is not part of the negotiations. The Biden administration seems to be seeking security guarantees for its strategic ally in the Middle East, which Iran considers to be its adversary. Could security guarantees for Israel, a domestic issue for America, pave the way for a deal?
Russia is seeking to play the role of a broker. It is convinced that it has leverage of its own over Israel, as the two countries enjoy extensive economic ties and have their own strategic objectives in Syria over which they can co-ordinate with each other. And while UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s visit to Moscow earlier in the week is said to have led to a disappointing outcome vis-a-vis the Ukraine crisis, I am given to believe that her talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were positive in the context of the Iran issue.
There is undoubtedly an overlap between two of the world’s most compelling crises right now, and if the diplomatic efforts to resolve the Ukraine crisis become inexorably complicated, today’s positive climate regarding the Iran issue may not hold tomorrow either. Were goodwill to indeed evaporate, Russia would feel the need to use Iran as a sharp object of escalation with the West. It is in this context that Mr Scholz’s upcoming visit to Moscow is crucial.
Can the German Chancellor deliver a diplomatic victory in Moscow a week after French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to the Russian capital ended with no meaningful rapprochement? That will depend on how much Mr Biden is willing to budge on Iran and, equally, how much Mr Putin is ready to concede on Ukraine.