Are the Vienna nuclear talks meant to reach an agreement?

Are the Vienna nuclear talks meant to reach an agreement?

Fereydoun Majlessi (source: Fereydoun Majlessi)

The Iranian site Economy 24 interviewed the former diplomat Fereydoun Majlessi on the latest round of talks in Vienna and “the pessimism” it encouraged with regards to the solution of the Iranian nuclear issue and corresponding international sanctions. Majlessi analyzed the rationale of the United States, Israel, the current Iranian government and discusses what a sanctions-ridden future of Iran could look like

Mira Ghorbanifar, Economy News Site 24/ Dec. 2.  2021

For the last few days the eyes of many experts in the field of diplomacy, politicians and media have been fixed on Vienna. Mainstream international media have been reporting and have been analyzing what is going on in Vienna in their political and international section. 

This time, the negotiation process may be more difficult than many previous attempts at reaching a resolution. It looks like there is a high wall of distrust after the withdrawal of the American government during the times of Trump. The wall of distrust has gotten taller and thicker than ever.

Now, the statements and interviews of the negotiating parties also show that there is a serious gap between the demands and the goals of each one of them and what is put on the table. A part of disagreement is the specific guarantee request of the Iranian side, which demands that other negotiating parties, especially the United States, agree not to leave the agreement in the future. 

The field of diplomacy and politics, of course, is the field of “conflict and compromise” and sometimes in negotiations, achievements can be realized when there is less hope for obtaining them. But what is the situation for Iran and the other parties in these negotiations? To better understand the current situation in the negotiations, we approached Fereydoun Majlessi, a former diplomat, historian, politician, and international expert, to look for his views on the seventh round of talks in Vienna.

This is an interview by Mira Ghorbanifar from the Economy 24 news site in Iran, which was published on 2 December 2021. 

The issue that made the Iranian side ask for receiving “double assurance” from its international partners in this round of negotiations was the violation of the 2015 nuclear agreement (JCPOA) and the American withdrawal from it in 2018. The issue has made Iranians more distrustful than ever. Even the former Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who negotiated the nuclear agreement, has acknowledged that a mistake has been made and he did not realize it was possible to withdraw from the mutually binding agreement. 

Is there historical background behind the issues of trust and withdrawal from the nuclear agreement? What should the Iranian side do with these conditions? Does Iran have to agree to the nuclear agreement’s renewal under any circumstances, or is it possible to get certain guarantees after all?

The reason for the current negotiations was that the Islamic Republic of Iran violated the contractual obligations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, carried out covert actions in Natanz and Fordow sites, at the Arak heavy water reactor and produced plutonium‌ usable in the production of nuclear bombs and other considerations near Lavizan and Parchin. So, in order to gain the trust of members of the United Nations’ Security Council and to “suspend” the six resolutions leading to international sanctions that have plagued Iran, the Islamic Republic was obliged to accept commitments under the 2015 nuclear agreement. The so-called JCPOA was implemented and Iran multiplied its economic growth rate. Unfortunately, Iran’s boycott of trade with the United States and its missile test marked with the slogan of the aim of Israel’s destruction, along with proxy warfare and military action in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and Yemen, undermined the other side’s confidence. Western countries regard themselves more committed to the existence of Israel rather than the one of Iran, and the signing of the nuclear agreement was basically meant to eliminate the danger of using an Iranian nuclear bomb for distraction of Israel. Iran’s military and missile actions aimed at destroying Israel by replacing the atomic bomb with missiles did not change the main issue. That is why, at the same time, Obama’s intervention led to the cancellation of contracts for the sale of Boeing, Airbus and Italian aircrafts to Iran, the European oil, automobile and telecommunications companies withdrew from Iran, and the banking transactions with Iran were cancelled. Other countries followed suit. The rise of the Republican Party and Trump sparked additional backlashes and the United States’ exit from the JCPOA agreement.

The claim that Zarif made a mistake when signing a document that allowed the withdrawal of the signatories does not help to solve the problem with the nuclear agreement. It is just an excuse for the failure of the current negotiations by those who for ideological pretexts opposed the nuclear agreement from the beginning and sabotaged its implementation. They are now in charge of continuing the negotiations themselves.

Even if Mr. Zarif would have confessed that he had made a mistake and did not realize that it was possible to leave the nuclear agreement, he is mistaken or evading. Because the Islamic Republic of Iran had no choice but to make commitments in order to gain the lost trust and to lift the destructive sanctions against the nation, and in return to obtain the acceptance of the other party to lift the sanctions. I already mentioned the next steps for both sides. The coming to power of Trump and the Republican administration intensified the confrontation and the withdrawal of the United States. 

The Islamic Republic has believed that the implementation of the nuclear agreement has nothing to do with its strategic policy toward Israel or any other actions. The Trump administration noted that Iran’s commitment to not endangering peace in the region, as outlined in the preamble of the nuclear agreement had been violated, and that the missile tests had undermined the confidence towards Iran. 

Biden was opposed to the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement because when out of it the USA cannot be an obstacle to the Islamic Republic’s other endangering actions. Biden believed that when the USA is part of the nuclear agreement there are more possibilities for negotiation and understanding. Hence, he announced that the return to nuclear agreement is part of his government’s policy. Prior to the transfer of power to Biden, nuclear agreement opposition forces retaliated by taking other steps to expand and intensify the enrichment and obstacles to a return to the nuclear agreement. Biden did not consider himself committed to the new scene and an accomplished act, and the agreement remained suspended. Therefore, the loss of trust cannot be considered one-sided. It is not possible to get guarantees from governments to fulfill obligations when the future is unknown.

How serious do you consider the dispute between the United States and Israel over Iran and the nuclear talks? According to media reports, is there really a difference between the two countries on the issue of Iran in terms of purpose, content and strategy?

Of course, there are tactical differences between the Democratic government of the United States and Israel. Israel wants to use military force and does not want to be alone. It takes refuge in the shield of the United States and the Arab countries in the region. The United States does not want to participate in a new conflict in the region. 

One of the reasons Biden withdrew his forces from Afghanistan and part of Iraq was to avoid casualties in the event of a collision. The Democratic government is also tired of the cost of supporting the Israeli adventures that take place beyond Israel’s 1967 borders. The American democrats don’t agree with the occupation and don’t want to defend Israel’s aspirations, but US, Russian, and European support for Israel’s existence is strategic. China has billions of dollars of industrial investment in the port of Haifa. It owes more to Israel than to Iran. All those facts should be taken into account by the Iranian policy makers. 

Iran is constantly talking about the need for certain guarantees. Are there concepts of a definitive domestic guarantee in terms of international law and the history of such agreements in the practice of diplomacy? For example, what can the United States do to stop the violation of the nuclear agreement? What can the Iranian side do in its turn?

The nuclear agreement is not an international contract and has not been ratified by the US Congress. It relies on Security Council resolutions. It is “suspended”, and in the event of a violation by Iran, there is a trigger mechanism that leads to a return to the sanctions resolutions. The issue of Iran and its outcome is a political and security issue, not a legal dispute! Citing positions and arguing for legal legitimacy is wishful thinking. It is merely a means of refraining from understanding the dispute. Observance of the political and security aspects of this agreement by both parties is essential for its survival and enjoyment of its benefits. The Islamic Republic can gain confidence if it avoids threats and proxy wars.

In the current situation, do you think that the mistakes made by the ninth and tenth administrations (of the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) towards the negotiating parties may be different from the current one, or do you think that the government of Seyyed Ibrahim Raisi will follow the path of the twelfth government in foreign policy?

Given the way the 13th government was elected: the support of the parliament, the judiciary and the armed forces, and given the principled opposition to the nuclear agreement by the current government officials, who consider themselves more open to jihadist values ​​at any cost, I need to say that I don’t believe in values and positions based on ideals. Recent statements by senior military and civilian officials on the eve of the talks also indicate that they do not agree to negotiate on “any regional proposal” that refers to the Israeli position in the region and also includes “sanctions against threats.”

How do you see this issue being talked about as an issue of a last resort? With this level of comprehensive sanctions being in force, do you think Iran will no longer worry about more sanctions or even activating the trigger mechanism for return to the pre-nuclear agreement sanctions?

In my opinion, this round of negotiations is unlikely to face a sudden turnaround and a result, given the propaganda that was made during the negotiations. Probably by depending on the selfless support of the people, the authorities will probably not worry about the escalation of sanctions and the trigger mechanism. We are now approaching the kind of sanctions of Saddam’s time, namely on oil for food and medicine. We have not yet reached the air and sea sanctions applied against Libya’s Gaddafi, which could cause problems. But Iran is a big country with industrial facilities and products, by its domestic energy consumption, equivalent to 4.5 million barrels of oil and gas per day, and it will probably survive with its economy in a low  profile scale, if it does not have to face a military confrontation. I do not think any military action will be taken, even if the trigger mechanism is activated and a return to international sanctions takes place. 

The situation can be expected to remain the same in the next 5 to 10 years. Iran has common borders with 15 countries. The industry of smuggling and cheap sale of oil and petrochemical products will also provide “currency” or, better yet, credit for bartering vital matters. Iran has more internal strength than Venezuela and North Korea. The only danger is to continue to drown in the erosive wars in the same way that destroyed the Soviet Union.

Photo: The nuclear negotiations in Vienna (source: YouTube, TRT)

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