What to expect as Iran and world powers head for nuclear talks

Representatives of the world powers that signed a 2015 nuclear deal are headed to Vienna on Tuesday to save the landmark accord, but the path forward appears long and arduous.

News on Friday that remaining members of the accord – Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom – will hold in-person talks was greeted as a welcome development to avoid a total breakdown.

In a late-night Clubhouse voice chat, Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said last week the “deadlock is being broken” on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as a “childish” argument over who should act first comes to an end.

Representatives from Iran and the United States, however, will not be in the same room together in Vienna, as Iran insists there will be no direct or indirect talks between the two countries before the US lifts the harsh sanctions former President Donald Trump imposed after unilaterally abandoning the deal in 2018.

A year later, Iran started scaling back its commitments under the deal in response as the US continued its “maximum pressure” campaign despite opposition by the other signatories.

‘Rapid sanction-lifting’

Sina Azodi, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said both Iran and the US have recently shown the political will to restore the accord.

But while Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a tweet on Friday that the JCPOA signatories would direct their focus to “rapidly finalise sanction-lifting” in Vienna, that may be easier said than done.

“The issue here is that Iran’s actions to violate the deal are reversible, whereas for the US, it will be more difficult because of Trump administration’s scorched-earth policy to destroy JCPOA as much possible, and the complicated web of sanctions,” Azodi told Al Jazeera.

Zarif said earlier this year that the US had imposed, reimposed, or relabelled some 1,600 sanctions on Iran, inflicting $1 trillion worth of direct and indirect economic damage.

It is unclear how those sanctions will be revoked, or how many sanctions will eventually need to be lifted for Iran to make good on its promise of coming back to full compliance with the nuclear deal.

‘On the right path’

Trump administration officials made it a mission in 2020 to impose sanctions with new designations – namely “terrorism” and human rights abuses – on already-sanctioned Iranian individuals and entities in an effort to make it more difficult for a potential Joe Biden administration to come back to the nuclear deal.

According to Diako Hosseini, a senior researcher with the Center for Strategic Studies, the research arm of the Iranian president’s office, Iran expects all sanctions – under any labels – imposed by Trump to be lifted.

“It appears officials in Tehran understand conditions within the US and the Biden administration’s limitations well, but at the same time that is an issue related to the US, not Iran,” he told Al Jazeera.

Hosseini said upcoming negotiations will be difficult, especially since there may be stark contrasts between what different sides expect each other to do to restore the JCPOA, expectations that need to be reconciled.

“I don’t expect a sudden and major success, but we can be sure that we’re on the right path. I expect we’ll have a clearer vision of what all sides need to do to return to their commitments under JCPOA at the end of the Vienna talks, which is an acceptable success for the start,” he said.

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