Prospects of the 7th Vienna JCPOA Negotiation

The United States and Iran have a common need to ease tensions. The upcoming JCPOA negotiations in Vienna can be given some cautious optimism.

On November 29, the seventh round of the Vienna negotiations on JCPOA will begin. Can the United States and Iran reach an agreement on the revival of JCPOA? This has once again become a focus issue.

Since President Raisi took office in early August 2021, the new Iranian administration has not been very active in the Vienna JCPOA negotiations. After winning the presidential election in June, President-elect Raisi made it clear that the foreign policy of the new Iranian administration will not be limited to the 2015 Nuclear Deal.

However, Iran has also repeatedly stated that it does not oppose returning to the JCPOA negotiations. The Raisi administration has insisted that the United States must lift its unjust sanctions against Iran first and that there is no point in continuing the previous negotiations that will not yield positive results. Iran also believes that future JCPOA negotiations in Vienna cannot involve Iran’s missile development and regional policy.

One significant difference between the upcoming talk in Vienna and the previous six rounds is that Iran’s administration and its chief nuclear negotiator are changed. Iran’s new chief nuclear negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani, is a tougher diplomat who defends Iran's nuclear rights more firmly.

In the past few months, in order to push Iran to return to the negotiating table in Vienna, the United States has continued to communicate with Russi, the UK, France, Germany, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and China. On August 25, the US special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, said in an interview that the United States “is prepared to make compromises ‘on difficult issues’ if Tehran does the same”.

In fact, both the United States and Iran do not want to give up the revival of the JCPOA. Without the constraint of the JCPOA, Iran’s nuclear project will be more difficult to control. This is certainly not what The United States expects to see. Meanwhile, it seems that if Tehran does not return to full compliance with the JCPOA, the US sanctions on Iran will continue.

For the time being, I think Washington’s demand for JCPOA is more urgent than that of Tehran. America's “Maximum Pressure” has indeed had a serious impact on Iran, and Iran used to be more eager than the United States to revive JCPOA. However, the successive rounds of the Vienna negotiations failed to achieve the desired results. This disappointed the Iranian side. In addition, the US failure in Afghanistan not only further eases the external pressure on Iran but also shows that US interest in the Middle East is declining.

Also, according to the relevant provisions of the JCPOA, Iran has the right to redevelop its nuclear program if other signatories fail to perform the JCPOA. In fact, Iran has already done so and has made major advances in its nuclear program. Moreover, in recent years Iran has increasingly emphasized eastward diplomacy and Iran's relations with China and Russia are deepening.

These new trends make the United States and its allies hope to resume the JCPOA as soon as possible so as to eliminate the challenges posed by Iran’s nuclear development. Moreover, considering Iran's Geostrategic position that can’t be ignored, these countries also hope to establish normal or good relations with Iran.

However, there is still a seemingly insurmountable gap between ideal and reality. Many sanctions imposed by the United States on Iran are supported by law and cannot be lifted quickly through executive orders. Moreover, there are still strong anti-Iran and anti-JCPOA voices in the United States. The internal politics of the United States has determined that the sanctions against Iran are difficult to lift in a short time.

On the other hand, it is also difficult for Iran to agree to include missile and regional policy issues in the JCPOA negotiations. Also, there are strong anti-American and anti-JCPOA feelings in Iran. Iran's internal politics has also determined that it is difficult to compromise in the struggle against the United States.

In other words, it seems that neither Washington nor Tehran can meet each other's public demands. Will the seventh round of talks end in fruitless, or will a major breakthrough be made? This mainly depends on the actual attitude of the United States and Iran in the next negotiations.

Once bitten, twice shy. Iran requires the United States to promise not to withdraw once it returns to the JCPOA. Compared with other controversial issues, I think it is possible for the United States and Iran to reach a consensus on this issue. Besides, the United States has room for lifting some sanctions against Iran and helping Iran take back some assets that have been frozen abroad.

As for the issues of Iran’s missile and regional policies, the United States can’t expect to solve new problems within the old framework. Although Iran does not agree to discuss these two issues in the JCPOA negotiations, can new negotiations be opened outside the JCPOA negotiations to deal with these two issues? If it can get something to make its regime more stable and its country better, is it sure that Iran will not consider discussing missile and regional policy issues?

For the Raisi administration, which desperately needs political recognition at home and abroad, talks with no real gains are meaningless. The new Iranian administration needs to see talks with desired results. In early this month, Ned Price, the spokesperson for the US Department of State, said at a press conference that it is possible to reach an agreement on JCPOA negotiations in a short period of time, but this requires active cooperation from Iran.

Frankly, policymakers in Washington D.C should understand that it was the United States' unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA that caused the current problem. Moreover, some US sanctions, including those directed at Iran, have been increasingly opposed by more and more countries. The United States should make more active contributions to future JCPOA negotiations.

It is foreseeable that if this upcoming round of negotiations is still as fruitless as the previous rounds, Iran will be more passive towards such negotiations in the future. Moreover, because of the increasingly urgent domestic need for nuclear energy, Iran will almost certainly continue to strengthen its nuclear program. Of course, if this is the case, the United States will not lift sanctions on Iran. In this way, all stories will return to the beginning.

In my opinion, in the current background of competition among major powers, the United States will not spend too much resources in Iran. The country, whose people are increasingly dissatisfied, also needs a better international environment for development. The United States and Iran have a common need to ease tensions. So, the upcoming JCPOA negotiations in Vienna can be given some cautious optimism.

As a Chinese academic scholar, I would like to emphasize that I think China should be happy to see the improvement of US-Iran relations. A serious confrontation between the United States and Iran does limit the better development of China-Iran relations and China-US relations. For me, the normalization of US-Iranian relations is beneficial to China. The Meng Wanzhou event of Huawei can support this view.

For some time to come, the bilateral relations between China, the United States and Iran may still affect each other. I believe China should look at US-Iran relations from a broader perspective. Perhaps this is why China has always taken a positive attitude towards JCPOA.


* Part of this article was published in Tehran Times on November 25. In addition, it covers Prof. Fan's speech at the online panel entitled "What Awaits Iran: The Future on Nuclear Negotiations" organized by İRAM on November 18.

Iran, JCPOA, Nuclear Issue, US, Raisi Administration