Containment, rather than breakthrough, may be the theme of the talks being held in Vienna between Iran and the five permanent UN Security Council member states plus Germany. The purpose of the negotiations is to revive the nuclear deal signed by the same group of countries in 2015. In parallel, Iranian escalation against the US – a member of the so-called "P5" alongside Britain, China, France and Russia – cannot be ruled out, as such a scenario would serve Tehran's interests ahead of its presidential election in June.
China and Russia, both allied to Iran, seem to have approached these talks slightly differently.
Moscow has thrown its support behind Tehran’s demand for the US to immediately lift sanctions on its ability to buy weapons and sell oil. Russia is currently pressing for a significant arms deal with Iran and is not keen on Washington’s proposal of lifting sanctions gradually. Beijing, on the other hand, is decidedly calmer, as it balances its large investments in Iran with its economic and energy relations with key Arab states.
The issue of any country selling weapons to Iran is contentious for the US. The previous Trump administration had vowed to impose sanctions on China and Russia, aimed specifically at their financial sectors, if they chose to do so. However, neither power seems to expect the Biden administration to retaliate against potential violations. There is also a sense that neither power is all that interested in facilitating US-Iran rapprochement. Rather, each is working to ensure that any accord or breakthrough occurs through its own efforts.
A question worth raising, then, is how able or willing are Gulf states to use their leverage with China and Russia to influence their policies, which indirectly fuel Iran’s domestic and regional projects that regional states view as threats to their national security and the security of other Arab states.
In a recent conversation, Joel Rayburn, who was US special envoy to Syria and deputy assistant secretary for Levant Affairs in the Trump administration, told me that key Arab states have sufficient leverage and may need to use it. Mr Rayburn said: “The nuclear agreement between Iran and other powers addresses none” of the problems of the region, which amount to “an existential problem for the countries of the Middle East”.
Other experts I spoke to recently have also pointed to China and Russia’s desire for neutrality given their interests both in Iran and the Arab world.
Matthew McInnis, Research Director at the Institute for the Study of War, said China will be eager not to get dragged into potential conflicts in the region. The Chinese, Mr McInnis said, see their strategic agreement with Iran “as a way to improve their overall position in the region and continue to assert their influence and pushing back against US and western roles there”. But as he pointed out, they also have investment in many Arab states “and they're not putting all their eggs into the Iranian basket”.
However, there is a theory that, when push comes to shove, one or both of Iran and China will struggle to maintain neutrality.
According to Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, Chairman of Al Arabiya's Editorial Board, fostering peace between trading partners will be desired but “the reality is that it is almost impossible to implement”. One of the reasons for this is Russia’s limited financial muscle, at least in comparison to that of China. Mr Al-Rashed said that China’s financial capabilities and influence were large enough that “they can afford to be friends with both sides, [while] the Russians actually cannot. So, eventually the Russians have to take sides”.
The other reason for why peace in the region is not guaranteed is Iran’s own politics.
The increasingly influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) dictates Iran’s foreign and nuclear policies – and that much is evident in the Vienna talks. The IRGC's domestic priority is to reduce the influence of liberals in Iran’s electoral landscape, so that it can rule overtly without the cover of the moderates, represented by the likes of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Iran's adversarial relations with the US is electorally and strategically expedient for the IRGC, especially since the withdrawal of US forces from the Middle East is one of its goals. Moreover, Iran’s foreign policy is predicated on ideological expansion carried out by IRGC-backed militias in some Arab countries. In fact, it is for this reason that Iran has refused to allow the P5+1 group to discuss the issue of its regional agenda in Vienna – just like it did during the 2015 negotiations.
The consequent nuclear deal helped unlock funds with which the IRGC further expanded into Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. And this is why former US president Donald Trump pulled his country out of the agreement in 2018.
Today, the IRGC senses that history is repeating itself – especially with Mr Trump no longer in office. If the Vienna talks lead to a breakthrough, the IRGC will be the biggest beneficiary. That said, the failure of the talks – or at least containing their success until after the Iranian election – is more expedient for it. For it does not actively seek a breakthrough or the lifting of sanctions with Mr Rouhani and Mr Zarif still in government, as that might give the so-called liberals a win ahead of the presidential election. Moreover, funds may not be that much of a concern now that Iran’s strategic partnership agreement with China is in place.
It is also important to note that, it isn’t Britain but Germany that is playing the lead role in the Vienna talks. This reflects a European position that is less interested in Tehran’s regional agenda than it is in tackling the issue of its nuclear weapons programme. It seems willing to offer concessions to Iran, including meeting its demand to continue enriching uranium “within reasonable limits” and continuing the programme despite Tehran's denial of full access to UN nuclear inspectors.
The Biden team is, no doubt, aware of the challenges of the Vienna process. But it is determined to seek a breakthrough that still seems far-fetched. The concern now is that it may end up relinquishing whatever leverage it has for getting a deal.
Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National