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Without an Expiry Date, Iran Nuclear Talks in Vienna Drag on With No End in Sight

While the West refuses to put an end to negotiations with Iran or set an expiry, the Islamic Republic continues to make progress in its nuclear program

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi looks on during a joint press conference with his Russian and Turkish counterparts following their summit in Tehran in July.
Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi looks on during a joint press conference with his Russian and Turkish counterparts following their summit in Tehran in July.Credit: Atta Kenare / AFP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

On Thursday, Israel watched in disappointment the renewal of nuclear negotiations between Iran and Western powers in Vienna. One round after another of talks, meeting after meeting, and Iran continues to advance its nuclear program under the aegis of treading water in Vienna – but the West is refusing to put an end to the discussion and declare a final deadline for the negotiations.

The current round of talks, similar to its predecessors, hasn't aroused any optimism in the United States or elsewhere, most officials with knowledge of the negotiations think this round will bear no fruit: Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, has not changed his position against an agreement with the West and will not give the Iranian negotiating team any freedom to make more progress. In addition, the middle-level decision makers in Iran, including President Ebrahim Raisi, senior leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the atomic energy commission, have no trust in the Americans and the West.

In contrast, the Iranian Foreign Ministry and its national security council are the ones who are trying to make progress and sign a nuclear agreement – and they are the ones leading the Iranian discourse in Austria. A cautious assessment is that the present round of talks will end quickly: the head of the U.S. delegation, Robert Malley, was quoted expressing pessimism about the present round and the European representatives sent relatively low-level delegations to the talks.

The key question for the current round of talks is whether Iran will continue to insist on closing the investigations into violations of the agreement in the past, and whether the West will give in to Iran in order to preserve the dialogue between the two sides. Officials in Jerusalem estimate the chances of closing the cases against the violations as low.

It is very likely that the United States will not set an endpoint for the talks before the November midterm elections. Some officials in Jerusalem say that only dramatic advances in Iran’s nuclear program, which would make any agreement superfluous, would cause the Western powers to leave the negotiating table. European diplomats involved in the talks, meanwhile, have said that there is no point in setting a deadline at the moment.

Recent history has taught us that it is preferable to see Iran at the negotiating table and showing caution in its actions than an Iran acting without a diplomatic framework that could apply pressure, one Western diplomat said.

After the United States withdrew from the agreement, the Iranians only increased their efforts to complete their nuclear program. They intensified their uranium enrichment, upgraded their knowledge in the field and today are now closer than ever to a bomb, said the diplomat. The world will not manage to stop Iran without an agreement, and therefore, as of now the diplomatic channel has a chance of delaying the program, he added.

On the eve of the renewal of the talks, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his support for an agreement. But in an interview with the Lebanese newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour, he made it clear that renewing the agreement would not guarantee quiet in the Middle East. “Whether an agreement is reached, or not, in any case we will have to act to strengthen regional security and stability," he said. The 2015 agreement did not prevent a rise in tensions in the region, a new agreement will not eliminate them magically either, added Macron.

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