A very upbeat outlook on negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 powers arising from the achievement of a landmark accord in Geneva last November has been tempered by a more tense tone during follow-up discussions held earlier this month in Vienna, Monitor Global Outlook has learned.
Though the recent talks successfully established a timeline and agenda, as well as finalized March 17 as the start date for formal negotiations, key, unforeseen differences between Iranian negotiators and their P5+1 counterparties have emerged. These revolve around the types of compromises the world powers – the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, plus Germany – expect Iran to make and the level of sanctions relief Tehran will actually receive with a final accord. These will be key sticking points in future negotiations.
“There is a difference in expectations and understandings. Between what the Americans expect of Iran and how much limitations will be on Iran,” a veteran Tehran-based analyst who asked to remain anonymous tells MGO. “On one hand, [lead US negotiator] Wendy Sherman keeps acknowledging Iran’s right to enrichment. Yet that acknowledgment is coming with lots of limitations: many ifs, buts, and maybes. [Iranian negotiators] are worried it’s veering off from technical discussions toward general political concerns.”
In its most recent findings, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran has been complying fully with the interim Geneva accord, which bodes well for a potential agreement down the line. Now, though, Tehran is expected to agree to more painful compromises over its nuclear energy program in exchange for the considerable loosening of financial and economic sanctions it needs to bring in foreign investment and help revive its ailing economy.
“The Iranians expected much more slow and progressive discussions into additional details, such as whether certain facilities will remain open or closed, how much limitations will be placed, and how intrusive inspections will be,” continues the analyst in Iran. Bigger concessions beyond nuclear enrichment mean “There is definitely a bump in the road because for them, it is a matter of national sovereignty,” says the analyst. “How serious that bump is, we will find out.”
So far, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publicly backed the nuclear talks and voiced his support for the negotiating team lead by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. There have been widespread media reports on what are considered to be positive achievements, such as the US recognizing Iran’s “right to enrichment.” However, Mr. Khamenei has begun expressing caution on the talks, speaking more often about Iran’s need to maintain a “resistance economy” with a focus on self-sufficiency in the face of international pressure.
In line with Mr. Khamenei’s recent statements, many prayer leaders throughout Iran have made a point of speaking during their Friday sermons about supporting a national economy of “resistance,” alongside their comments about the progression of nuclear discussions.
“The taboo of discussing the benefits of negotiating the nuclear program has been broken, and that’s significant. The mood has not gone negative,” says the analyst in Tehran. “But the final picture of what enrichment will look like is a major issue … With very limited enrichment it will be an extremely hard sell to conservatives in the country. It will look like they are capitulating.”
“Both Iranian and American negotiators understand that there is an inverse relationship between preserving the positive momentum in the talks and addressing domestic political imperatives. That is why time is of the essence,” says Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, who was in Vienna for the discussions.
After the first round of formal talks next month, negotiations will take place every four weeks until July 20, the expiration date of a landmark interim accord signed in Geneva last November. That agreement, which went into effect Jan. 20, allowed Iran to receive a total $4.2 billion in periodic money transfers and mild sanctions relief in exchange for a reduction in uranium enrichment by Tehran. The deal also facilitated the establishment of a humanitarian channel to pay for permissible goods, such as food and medicines.
“The main challenge in Vienna was clarifying the ambiguities of the Geneva deal. The parties had diagonally opposed interpretations of the agenda items for the final settlement outlined in the First Step agreement,” says Mr. Vaez.
“The good news is that the two sides still retain the political will necessary for resolving the crisis. The bad news is that they remain far apart on key issues, from Iran’s future enrichment capacity to the extent of sanctions relief,” he adds.
Global sanctions, particularly a European Union oil embargo and unilateral US Treasury sanctions, have slashed Tehran’s crude oil sales – the longtime pillar of the Iranian economy – by more than half, restrained Iran’s access to the global financial system, and helped push the depreciation of Iran’s currency.
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