What’s the Future of the Iran Nuclear Talks?

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What’s the Future of the Iran Nuclear Talks?

Iran’s new negotiating team signaled few compromises as it resumed talks over freezing its nuclear program amid reports of new uranium enrichment efforts.

Iran’s negotiating team has presented a harder line than its predecessors in nuclear talks. What could this mean for diplomacy over its nuclear program?

This is a potential setback. The Iranian negotiators are defining a new reality with a harder-line bargaining position. They insist that the United States lift all sanctions imposed by the Donald Trump administration, even those that dealt with issues such as terrorism, which were not part of the original agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). And on the nuclear front, they apparently want to retain some of the gains Iran has made in the past few years, such as advancements in uranium enrichment capabilities. They insist that the United States needs to make the first move and lift its sanctions since it was the party that originally left the agreement. Yet, at the same time, Iran’s negotiators claim that they do want to return to the JCPOA, although some of their reported positions, such as sweeping demands for lifting sanctions, are not consistent with the agreement’s terms.

The impetus for the previous Iranian administration to negotiate was opening up the economy to global trade. Has the new regime decided Iran can afford for the talks to fail?

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The economic situation in Iran is serious. Inflation is raging and the price hikes are damaging the livelihoods of average citizens. Additionally, another wave of the pandemic is looming. The new government professes a desire to tame inflation as well as create new jobs and much-needed housing. It is hard to see how it can achieve any of these objectives without sanctions relief. But, at the moment, Iran’s negotiators seem determined to forge ahead with their existing diplomatic approach.

Negotiators sit in a square with the Chinese, EU, French, German, Iranian, Russian, and UK flags seen behind them.
Negotiators in Vienna, Austria, wait for the start of talks on resurrecting the Iran nuclear deal. European Union Delegation in Vienna/Reuters

It is worth noting that new President Ebrahim Raisi has indicated his support for the “resistance economy” espoused by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in which the country becomes more self-sufficient and limits trade to only close neighbors and allies. This is a departure from the previous administration of President Hassan Rouhani, who sought a broader opening of trade and commerce to lift the economy.

Amid the talks, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog reported new uranium enrichment activity at Iran’s Fordow plant. Is it possible for these talks to freeze that activity, or is Iran intent on developing nuclear weapons?

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A smaller deal whereby Iran freezes some activities and the United States releases some of the Iranian funds frozen in foreign banks is still possible. This is what is sometimes referred to as the “less-for-less” deal. It would be an interim arrangement to lower the temperature while the two sides try to forge a path back to the JCPOA—which itself is an interim agreement, with many important provisions about to expire.

Have Israel’s reported attempts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program been successful?

It is difficult to assess the impact of such efforts without access to classified data, but they appear to have damaged Iran’s nuclear installations. The question is whether Iran can recover from its losses and forge ahead. No sabotage effort can have a permanent impact, so Israel’s measures have a limited ability to derail Iran’s nuclear trajectory. 

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The region has learned to live with periods of prolonged stalemate in talks between the United States and Iran. They have been in sporadic discussion over Iran’s nuclear program for nearly two decades, a period that has featured more impasses than progress. However, as Iran inches closer to developing a nuclear bomb, a number of Arab Gulf states will likely appeal to the United States for security guarantees.

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