Iran nuclear deal: What key players want from talks

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Israel's F-16I Sufa fighter jet

Talks to resurrect a deal to stop Iran obtaining a nuclear bomb begin in Austria on Monday. But the competing ambitions of the countries involved make success a long shot, writes Jonathan Marcus.

Ever since the Trump administration abandoned the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 it has become commonplace to describe the agreement - known as the JCPOA - as being on life-support.

This week could help to determine if it is finally declared dead or if, at the very least, something can be salvaged to forestall a new Middle East crisis.

The formal meeting in Vienna will include Iran, along with Russia, China and the so-called European 3 - that is Britain, France and Germany.

The original deal came about because there were real fears in the West that Iran's ultimate intention was, if not explicitly to develop a nuclear weapons capability, to become a so-called "threshold" state - one that has all the technical knowledge and wherewithal to sprint towards such a capability at a time of its choosing.

Israel and the United States saw this as unacceptable. The JCPOA deal, while in no sense perfect, was seen by many as the best option - buying time perhaps for the development of a more positive relationship with Tehran.

It constrained many aspects of Iran's research programme and opened it up to greater international scrutiny from the UN's nuclear watchdog, the IAEA. In return many of the nuclear-related economic sanctions against Iran were lifted.

So could it be revived? Given the shorter time left on some of its deadlines, and the advances Iran has made since it was drafted, the JCPOA deal is less useful than it was, says Mark Fitzpatrick, veteran non-proliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"The more important question is whether the deal remains useful on balance, and here the answer is again certainly yes, especially for the enhanced verification measures it entails."

Let's break down what the various actors involved in this drama want from the upcoming talks.

Iran

For Tehran, it is all about sanctions removal. To be fair, Iran was broadly honouring the terms of the JCPOA and it was Washington that unilaterally walked away.

So the Iranians want all sanctions lifted and the focus to be on US commitments.

Signals are confusing. Some statements suggest that they are not averse to returning to the JCPOA, though they are certainly not going to broaden the scope of the talks to cover missiles or their regional activities. And they want a copper-bottomed assurance that if they return, then the JCPOA will bind future US administrations.

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Iran's nuclear programme: What's been happening at its key nuclear sites?

Only then will they talk about the mechanics of returning to compliance. This latter demand though is impossible to meet. The US system just does not work like that.

All the mood music from Tehran is tough. But might they budge?

Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group, says: "While it's a safe bet to assume that the new Iranian negotiating team will drive a hard bargain, it is hard to predict whether they would, in addition to their maximalist demands, have the requisite flexibility to meet the US halfway."

United States

The US is not attending the meeting but its officials in Vienna will be keeping a close eye on it. The Biden administration thought that talks involving some of the other parties to the agreement earlier this year were moving towards an understanding with Tehran.

Washington backs a return to the JCPOA and expected Iran's new president to return to it after a suitable interval. However it seems to have badly misjudged the mood in Tehran.

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But how easy will it be to undo the progress that Iran has made in the interim? And how might any restoration of the deal be phased?

US officials are also signalling clearly their bottom line - President Biden will not countenance Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon and if talks fail, then the US has other options it can deploy.

Israel

It's a long way from Vienna but its shadow falls heavily over the talks.

Israel and Iran are arch-foes and Tehran does not recognise Israel's right to exist. Many in Israel see Iran's nuclear programme as presenting them with an existential threat.

Israel is already engaged in a deepening undeclared war with Iran and its proxies in Syria, broadening the scope of its air strikes in recent weeks.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is talking tough, stressing that his country will "preserve its freedom of action" with regard to Iran whatever comes out of the Vienna talks.

"Israel is not a party to the JCPOA", he says, "and Israel is not bound by it."

That's all very well but there has long been an ambivalence towards the nuclear deal in Israel. The official line echoed that of President Trump but many defence experts thought the deal useful in constraining Iran's actions and deferring a possible war.

There may be some who still believe this. But Iran has used the interim to make significant progress and Israel judges Iran by its actions not its words.

The Israeli position means there are potential tensions ahead with the Biden team, which many Israeli officials believe is eager to get a deal done with Tehran at almost any cost.

Gulf allies of US

Once implacable opponents of the JCPOA, many of Washington's Gulf allies have quietly changed their minds. As Ali Vaez notes, "Iran's Gulf Arab neighbours have realised that an imperfect deal is better than no deal".

It's not only that maximum pressure didn't put Iran in a box," he say. "But it unleashed an Iran that was much more aggressive in the region with the Gulf Arab states being caught in the crossfire between Iran and the US."

With Washington's strategic focus now much more on China than the Middle East, many of its allies now think that a reconstituted deal might serve their best interests.

Europe 3

All five countries who will be sitting around the table with Iran want a return to the full implementation of the deal along with the necessary lifting of US sanctions.

The Europeans have played a crucial role in the series of meetings with senior Iranian officials which have got the process to this point. Indeed Europe was instrumental in keeping the JCPOA alive during the Trump years.

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Inspectors of Iran nuclear facility

But the Europeans and the Americans are now at one in terms of the broad approach; the French in particular have been keen to stress that the new discussions with Iran must begin from where previous encounters left off in June, with the objective of a speedy return to the accord.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned Tehran recently against any "sham" negotiating stance.

China/Russia

Russia and China share western goals, wanting to see the JCPOA resurrected and the avoidance of any renewed crisis in the region.

But their relationships with the US are very different to those of the Europeans. Moscow and Beijing are mindful of Washington's declining focus on the Middle East and are looking out for their own interests in the region which, up to a point, makes them more sensitive to Tehran's concerns.

Iran is certainly eager to get closer to both.

Last September Iran was accepted for membership into the Shanghai Cooperation Council, a regional grouping that links Russia, China, several Central Asian countries, Pakistan and India.

This is seen by the Iranians as an important part of their "Look East" strategy to disentangle themselves from the US and the West.

This fits well with Russia and China's desire for a more multipolar world; in essence one where US global power is constrained. So Iran will ultimately be looking to Moscow and Beijing for support if the going gets tough.

A middle way?

Nobody seems hugely optimistic about a deal being struck.

A return to the JCPOA seems unlikely given Iran's unrealistic demands, says Mark Fitzpatrick of the IISS.

Some parties will then see military action as the only remaining option to stop Iran from getting closer to a bomb, he adds. But there could be a middle way.

"The US and Iran might look for a less-for-less arrangement, easing some sanctions in exchange for caps on uranium enrichment".

For all its faults the JCPOA had benefits.

A Middle East without its assurances will be a much more dangerous place.

Jonathan Marcus is honorary professor at the Strategy and Security Institute, University of Exeter, UK