Reframing Vienna: What about Iran’s Side of the Story?
Despite being labeled as intransigent and unwilling to pursue dialogue, Iran has shown its pragmatism over the years; the JCPOA bears witness to this. So what about its recent months-long abstention of negotiations in the Vienna Talks? To understand Iran's position, the post-JCPOA years need to be reframed.
There’s a problem with the way Iran is being made out to be in terms of the revival of the Vienna Talks. This isn’t new, of course. It’s part of the anti-Iran narrative that’s been espoused since the Iranian Revolution, but ever since the end of the 6th round of talks, Iran has been portrayed as a country that is unreasonably intransigent in its dealings with the E3 and the US and unwilling to engage in dialogue.
Reality disagrees, however. Iran’s approach to the talks stems from its tried and tested distrust toward the West. Be it imperialism, occupation, massacres, coerced monopolies, or military and security interventions, Iran has been subjected to them all in modern times, and these are all matters very much alive in the Iranian collective memory.
The distrust is real, grounded, and based on experience. If anything, Iran has shown a great deal of pragmatism and diplomatic know-how in its talks with the West over the past 42 years. The JCPOA bespeaks the country’s willingness to hold dialogue with international peers.
So how did we get from former President Rouhani’s optimism vis-à-vis a possible revival of the deal to the talks being delayed time and time again until the end of November?
First of all, let’s keep things straight. Iran has been abiding by the JCPOA, even after the US withdrew from the deal and launched its maximum pressure campaign in May 2018; former IAEA chief Yukiya Amano himself said so in March 2019.
It's commonly mentioned that Iran began reducing compliance with the deal in May 2019, but this wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision, as it wasn't the first to do so.
The JCPOA was expected to give Iran economic incentives in compensation for any steps it takes to reduce nuclear activities to "assure" the signatories that its nuclear program was indeed peaceful. Companies were supposed to be flooding in to deal with Iran and invest in its infrastructure. But the US constant recertification of the deal, Trump's eventual election, and his aggressive stance toward the Islamic Republic kept corporations wary of dealing with it.
Sure enough, the US withdrew from the deal, Iran was not able to deal with global banks through the SWIFT mechanism and its economy suffered a blow, and the EU (pressured by the US) did not implement the INSTEX mechanism, despite multiple warnings by Iran and a number of grace periods given to the EU to do so, but to no avail. Iran began remedial procedures by revving up its nuclear program, a right guaranteed to it by the deal, yet only after the E3 and the US did virtually nothing for Iran to reap any economic benefits.
If anything, Iran was the one abiding by the deal, which makes EU calls for Iran's re-compliance all the more aggravating for Iranians, who knew they were not in the wrong. They were being bullied.
The Vienna Talks
Fast forward to 2020. Biden was elected president, and he stressed that he will seek a return to the nuclear deal. President Rouhani and his cabinet were optimistic, but after six rounds of talks, it was agreed that though some progress was made, a number of key issues still stood.
The talks began in April 2020, in order to revive the deal, which for all intents and purposes was dead and only existed in name. But Iran had learned from the mistakes of the past and had some conditions for any revival of the deal:
- Sanctions must be completely removed, not "lifted" or "suspended"
- No step-by-step removal of sanctions
- US sanctions removal must be tested before Iran removes JCPOA remedial procedures, meaning testing mechanisms that would ensure sanctions relief
- Legally-binding assurances must be given
The problem here lies with the US approach to the talks. Biden is trying to score a domestic win by scoring a diplomatic victory against Iran. As for why he didn't remove any of Trump's anti-Iran sanctions, the answer is simple: because he is trying to pressure Iran into a "longer and stronger" deal, and he needs the leverage of the sanctions to push the Iranians into accepting it.
Even after the Iranians attempted to compromise over asking for a legally-binding agreement and lowered their demand to a commitment from Biden that he would remain in the agreement for the remainder of his own term, he refused.
What the US wants is to have the option to pop in and out of the deal at will, with sanctions in hand, and with Iran also in the deal. Quite simply, Biden is pursuing a policy more dangerous than that of Trump (and more destabilizing for Iran).
Following the first six rounds of the Vienna Talks, Ayatollah Khamenei voiced his mistrust toward the West in a July 28 speech, saying that they will "give no guarantees that they will abide by their commitments in the future," no doubt in reference to Biden's refusal to give guarantees.
The West & the US are totally unjust & malicious in their negotiations. They have no hesitation in breaching their commitments at all. In the previous agreement, they breached their commitments & they give no guarantee they will abide by their commitments in the future either.— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) July 28, 2021
As for Iran, after its experience with the US withdrawal, it sees that the economic predictability offered by the status-quo, slow that it may be, is far more reassuring than the destabilizing effect of a JCPOA that the US does not comply with. If sanction relief was unreliable, then companies would not deal with Iran for fear of future sanctions, and Iran was not willing to go into the talks unless the proper guarantees were given.
A new foreign policy
Between Iran's new region-centric foreign policy and its accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, its need for the US to remove sanctions to open up economic venues has lessened. Despite that, there is no doubt that a revival of the deal, if accompanied by legal guarantees and sanctions waivers, will be beneficial for Iran's economy. Iran's current primary concern, on the economic level, is increased trade with its neighbors (a priority for Raisi), as well as regional economic integration, and not the revival of the JCPOA.
Facing these new developments, the US had little choice, forcing it to shift its efforts toward a Plan B of coercion to force Iran back to the table, ranging from sanctions to other, unspecified options. This isn't just for the mere want of scoring a diplomatic win on the domestic front. Russia, China, and Iran's growing solidarity and the US inability to counter this except through the threat of military might, on the one hand, and "Israel" effectively losing its battle against Iran's nuclear program, on the other, reveal that the US may need the deal in order to contain the program for a time. The JCPOA, in reality, is a form of negotiated punishment.
Iranian officials have reiterated over the past few months that they will not go back to the negotiating table unless they see tangible results from the negotiations. The fact that the 7th round of the Vienna talks has been scheduled for November 29 hints that the US is willing to make concessions.
The purpose of negotiations is not talking for the sake of talking, but to achieve tangible results on the basis of respect for mutual interests.— H.Amirabdollahian امیرعبداللهیان (@Amirabdolahian) November 2, 2021
The P4+1 should be ready for negotiations based on mutual interests & rights. 2/2
The benefits of the JCPOA
Both sides want the deal for their own reasons. The Iranians want it because they want to reap the economic benefits, while the US and the EU want it because it assuages their concerns over Iran's nuclear program. The JCPOA was never meant to address the full range of "threats" the West perceives from Iran, but the most acute ones, meaning their fears - although based on an Orientalist understanding of the world and their own confirmational biases - of Iran weaponizing its nuclear program. It was supposed to be a trust-building platform from which they can build on for future agreements; at least that's how the E3 and the US saw it.
From Iran's point of view, it has nothing to prove. It's been oppressed by the same Western powers trying to corner it - unsuccessfully - into a deal, even though it has stated time and time again that it has no plans for a weaponized nuclear program, and Ayatollah Khamenei declared that nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam. Despite all that and having nothing to prove, Iran is treading the pragmatic, diplomatic path with the aim of securing its interests, albeit with one important condition: respect.
A successful dialogue with Iran hinges on an understanding (1) of what it's been subjected to throughout its history, (2) of this region (West Asia) being part of its strategic depth (not the US or the EU's), and (3) of its foreign policy that is based on three guiding principles: pride, wisdom, and expediency.
Thus, Iran will not set foot into any negotiation where it is not treated as an equal.