Analysis |

‘Cautious Optimism’ Again as U.S.-Iran Nuclear Talks Resume

As economic and political pressure in Iran intensifies and Biden is set to lose the House's slim Democratic majority, the resumption of nuclear negotiations indicates a willingness to compromise

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (R) attends a press conference with Josep Borell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (L) in Tehran on Saturday.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (R) attends a press conference with Josep Borell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (L) in Tehran on Saturday.Credit: Atta Kenare / AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Iranian delegation to the nuclear accord negotiations, headed by Ali Bakri Qani, arrived in Qatar on Tuesday, as did the American delegation, headed by Robert Malley. Separately, the two men met with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, who will be hosting the indirect talks between the two sides. It appears that the Iranian delegation is a bit different in its composition this time; according to Iranian commentators, at least two of its members have been replaced. They were the ones expressing the toughest stance, which had put a strain on earlier negotiations.

The resumption of negotiations indicates the willingness of the United States and Iran to accept at least some of each other’s demands. Reports on Western media outlets quote senior Iranian sources as saying that Iran has given up its demand to remove the Revolutionary Guards from the list of international terrorist organizations, and at least one source was quoted as saying that “Iran never made such a demand.” Other reports estimate that Iran is demanding instead that sanctions on the Khatam al-Anbiya, the economic arm of the Guards, be lifted, but it’s unclear whether the U.S. has acceded to this demand.

According to some reports, the U.S. is demanding a public Iranian commitment not to hit American targets in exchange for America’s meeting this Iranian demand. This institution controls most economic projects in Iran, including airports, oil terminals and construction, through which huge amounts of money are funneled to the Revolutionary Guards. As long as this body is subject to sanctions, Iran will find it hard to reap the full benefits of the lifting of sanctions with the signing of the nuclear accord, which is why Iran is insisting on this issue.

In tandem, sources in Qatar report that the U.S. has already embarked on talks with Qatari government agencies about the technicalities involved in releasing Iranian funds now frozen in banks around the world, using the Qatari banking system. It’s possible that some of this money will be released soon. If these reports are correct, it seems the main stumbling block that halted the negotiations has been removed. If true, the question of guarantees that Iran is requesting on the continuation of the accord after the expiration of Biden’s term has not been resolved, as is the case with the demand of the International Atomic Energy Agency to obtain details about previously unreported nuclear sites. The spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry clarified on Monday that the restarted negotiations “will not touch on nuclear topics and not add or detract from what was agreed on in Vienna,” thereby affirming that the technical aspects were ironed out in a draft agreement five months ago.

The question of guarantees may find its solution in an appendix to be added to the new accord, which will include not only a commitment by the Biden administration to abide by the agreement to the end of its term, but an outline of a European alternative to be employed in case the next administration pulls out of the agreement again. This alternative is meant to be binding and more detailed than the sanction-bypassing apparatus that France and Germany wanted to establish unsuccessfully after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018, and is intended to allow Iran to present a diplomatic achievement that would appease opponents of the accord.

The choice of Qatar instead of Vienna, which was agreed upon during a visit to Tehran on Saturday by Joseph Borel, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, is not just a symbolic step meant to move the negotiations from Europe to a Middle East country that is friendly to Iran. Iran and Qatar are economic partners sharing the largest gas field in the Persian Gulf. At the same time, Qatar is officially a strategic ally of the U.S., and has already proved its ability to provide successful mediation services when hosting talks between the Taliban, the Afghani government and the United States. Qatar relied on Iran as a conduit bypassing the economic and military sanctions imposed on it by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in 2017, sanctions that were removed a year and a half ago. Since then, Qatar has returned to the “Arab bosom,” renewing its ties with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo. At the request of the Americans, Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim, has taken on the role of mediator in the talks with Iran, thus becoming part of the negotiation apparatus.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, right, and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani at a joint press briefing at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran, Iran in May.Credit: AP

The West and Iran have returned to using the familiar phrase, “cautious optimism,” in describing the chances of this round of talks, with no one warning that this is “a final opportunity.” The working assumption in the West is that the resumption of negotiations is in itself evidence that Iran’s leaders have decided to end them soon so that Iran can join the global oil market and start benefiting from the fruits of the accord before Europe finds alternative sources to replace Russian oil.

The economic and political pressure within Iran has been intensifying in recent months, seen in mass demonstrations in many Iranian cities, as well as in Iran’s parliament, where demands have been heard to fire ministers involved in the economy, as well as calls for summoning Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi to a hearing that could lead to his dismissal. Meanwhile, there are growing concerns in Germany, France and Britain, which are partners to the accord, as well as in the White House, over the possibility that talks will carry over into November, when the American midterm elections are held. Biden is expected to lose the slim Democrat majority he has in the House of Representatives and the parity in the Senate, which could result in contrarian legislation that could torpedo the negotiations and the chance of reaching a new accord. European diplomats shared their concerns with Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and it appears that this also contributed to Iran’s decision to resume negotiations.

This decision is not unrelated to other developments in the Middle East, mainly to the direct talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia regarding the renewal of their diplomatic relations. There have already been five rounds of talks on professional, military and security levels, with an anticipated sixth round, the first to be held on a diplomatic level. The head of Iraq’s transitional government, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who is mediating between Iran and the Saudis, visited Saudi Arabia on Saturday, continuing from there to Tehran to finalize the date of the next round of talks. A spokesman at Iran’s foreign ministry confirmed that the next round will deal with the opening of embassies in the two countries.

The resumption of ties is important for Iran and Saudi Arabia due to the approaching need to cooperate in sharing oil markets that will open up to Iran, and to end the war in Yemen and secure shipping in the Persian Gulf. This is all contingent on the signing of the nuclear accord. Iran wishes to reach a quick agreement with Saudi Arabia, even before Biden’s visit to the Middle East on July 13. Biden will visit Saudi Arabia to announce a regional defense alliance directed against Iran, an alliance in which Israel is a member. The resumption of relations between the two countries may defang this alliance, possibly making it irrelevant.

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