Iran’s agreement to resume nuclear negotiations in Vienna on 29 November 2021 has not eased the nagging anxieties of international powers concerned with those negotiations. These powers no longer see the simple act of setting a new date for the seventh round of negotiation as a good omen for reaching a deal that would ultimately reinforce the current nuclear agreement. Nor do they believe that it will avert the dangers of a new war breaking out in the region, given the persistent risks posed by Iran’s ongoing nuclear activity.
In this context, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned Iran of what he called a "sham negotiation" in an interview with Le Monde on 19 November 2021, stating, "If this discussion is a sham, then we will have to consider the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] empty." He added that "the United States is ready to return to the negotiations where they left off in June, so that they can be concluded quickly. We will assess from the 29th and in the following days whether this is also the Iranian will." International powers’ concerns over Iran’s stance on the negotiations can be explained in light of several considerations, the most prominent of which are as follows:
1. Appointment of a hardline group to the negotiating team: The removal of the previous head of the negotiating delegation, former Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Abbas Araghchi, from his post was seen by international powers as a sign that the new Ebrahim Raisi government is adopting a more hardline policy than the previous government. Araghchi took a more flexible approach with former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and was one of the key officials who helped broker the nuclear deal on 14 July 2015. However, the new head of the delegation, Ali Bagheri Kani, is known for his notable obstinacy towards the nuclear deal.
Bagheri Kani previously worked with former Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Saeed Jalili, who led negotiations under former President Ahmadinejad. During that time, tensions escalated in relations with international powers due to Iran’s continuous nuclear activity and the strict international sanctions imposed on it.
Bagheri Kani also sharply criticized European policy and countries for their "failure" to scale up relations with Iran and relieve some of the pressure imposed by US sanctions after former President Donald Trump’s administration withdrew from the nuclear agreement on 8 May 2018.
2. Accelerated progress of Iranian nuclear activity: Iran’s agreement to resume the seventh round of Vienna negotiations on 29 November was not accompanied by an announced cessation of its nuclear activities. Rather, just before the date of the seventh round was announced, Tehran deliberately revealed the progress it had made in uranium enrichment. The spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Behrouz Kamalvandi, announced on 5 November that Iran’s stockpile of 60% enriched uranium had reached 25kg, while its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium had reached about 120kg.
That means that Iran wants to exert stronger pressure on international powers before resuming negotiations to get the highest level of economic returns without making major concessions on some contentious issues.
As such, it was noteworthy that, coinciding with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s statements, US envoy for Iran Robert Malley was keen, on 19 November, to warn that the nuclear agreement would be rendered meaningless if Iran continues its nuclear activities. "Tehran is approaching the point of no return for reviving the nuclear deal after boosting its nuclear stockpile of enriched uranium before resuming talks this month," Malley said, adding, "Iran risks making it impossible to obtain any benefit from reviving the agreement that has been on hold since the US withdrew from it under President Donald Trump in 2018."
3. Fears of Iran buying time: Le Drian and Malley’s remarks show that international powers believe that Iran may have deliberately announced the new date for negotiations, without really intending to reach an agreement, to buy time and accomplish two goals. The first goal is to reduce the severity of international pressures on Iran since it stalled in announcing its return to the negotiating table. This announcement came so late that even its allies, such as Russia, had expressed their frustration with its stance.
Russian "frustration" was apparent in a tweet posted to Twitter by Russian Representative to International Organizations Mikhail Ulyanov this past 24 October. Ulyanov questioned the meaning of the word "soon" which was repeated by Iranian officials in response to questions about when negotiations would resume. In his tweet, he wondered, "‘Soon’. Does anybody know what it can mean in practical terms?"
The second goal is to reach a more advanced level of nuclear activity, whether in terms of raising the enrichment level to 60% or using more advanced centrifuges.
4. Tehran’s push to start from scratch: Western countries are concerned that Iran may be pressuring to negotiate from scratch all over again. In their view, there is nothing indicating that the government and new negotiating delegation have taken a positive view of the consensus reached on some key points during the six previous rounds. This places a greater burden on Western countries and increases the likelihood that a deal to end the current outstanding crisis between the two sides will ultimately not be reached.
5. Precedents for Tehran circumventing the nuclear agreement: Western countries base their position on previous incidents in which Iran has circumvented the nuclear deal. Iran has been keen to reduce its obligations in the nuclear agreement in response to sanctions imposed by the US since 7 August 2018, three months after its withdrawal from the agreement.
Although some European countries—alongside Russia and China—believe that the current crisis goes back to this decision made by the Trump administration, European countries still have not absolved Iran of responsibility for its part in endangering the nuclear deal. This is in light of Iran’s eagerness to circumvent the agreement and continue its nuclear activities in a manner that raises concerns over it advancing to the point of producing a nuclear bomb.
In conclusion, all of this is to say that the upcoming negotiations will not be easy, given the widening scope of disputes between Iran and Western countries. These conflicts are no longer simply confined to the main contentious issues of uranium enrichment and centrifuges. Rather, they now extend to Iran’s ability to rigorously engage in a new international commitment, should a deal be reached to save the current nuclear agreement from collapsing.