Iranian hardliners head for nuclear deal talks in Vienna

The hardline Iranian diplomat heading to Vienna this week for talks on the resumption of the nuclear accord with world powers once described that same deal as a “complete loss” and chastised his country’s negotiators for their “weakness”.

Ali Bagheri Kani will on Monday lead the Iranian delegation in indirect talks with the US intended to revive the moribund accord. Given the new hardline administration in Iran, Bagheri’s western counterparts will be seeking to gauge whether Iran’s top nuclear negotiator and his political masters in Tehran are serious about striking an agreement.

The talks resume after a five-month hiatus following the election of hardline president Ebrahim Raisi, amid western concern over Iran’s expanding nuclear programme and tougher rhetoric towards the negotiations.

Iran is adamant that for the talks to succeed it first needs to see all US sanctions lifted and receive guarantees from Washington that no American president will be able to abandon the agreement, as Donald Trump did in 2018. Unusually, Bagheri will be accompanied by an economic team, including central bank and other officials, to emphasise the importance of removing sanctions.

While Bagheri has in recent weeks separately met officials from the European signatories to the deal, a move seen as positive, western officials fear that Tehran will seek to roll back the progress made at previous rounds of talks.

“There’s a deep and very legitimate concern that the Iranians are going to posture and want to start from scratch or go back to their lecturing, and the Americans and Europeans are not up for that,” said Sanam Vakil, an Iran expert at Chatham House.

“They see any of that as a delaying strategy where Iran would continue to accelerate its programme in tandem with the farce of negotiations which are not really going to go anywhere.”

Iran and the other signatories — the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China — remained committed to the agreement after the US quit the deal and reimposed sanctions. But over the past two years Tehran has significantly expanded its nuclear development and it is increasingly accused of hindering the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN watchdog monitoring the accord’s implementation.

In the first half of this year, there were six rounds of talks, brokered by the EU, with the Biden administration indirectly talking to the government of Raisi’s predecessor Hassan Rouhani. But those talks were with Iranian officials who were supportive of the nuclear deal and desperate to prevent its total collapse.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, ultimately has the final word on all top foreign policy decisions. The election of Raisi, a conservative cleric, shifted the political dynamics in the republic as it put hardliners — many of whom were critical of the original deal and wary of engaging with the west — in control of all arms of the state for the first time in almost a decade.

An Iranian nuclear technician at a facility near Isfahan. Over the past two years Tehran has significantly expanded its atomic development © AP

Bagheri gave an insight into his views in a 30-page introduction he wrote for a Persian translation of the book Not for the Faint of Heart, written by Wendy Sherman, a US diplomat involved in the talks with Iran that led to the nuclear deal, and published three years ago.

The Iranian diplomat, who was Iran’s deputy nuclear negotiator from 2008-2013, described the 2015 nuclear agreement as a “complete loss” through which Iran’s red lines “were trampled upon”.

He blamed Iran’s previous negotiators, who worked under the Rouhani government, for their “weakness” and falling into US diplomats’ trap of establishing personal relations with their Iranian peers.

This, he wrote, paved the way for the US to influence Iranian diplomats, citing a top Iranian negotiator sending Christmas greetings to “a Jewish diplomat of the enemy”.

Bagheri also believes that “the US’s goal of overthrowing the Islamic republic has never vanished from its foreign policy”.

US officials have made no secret of their frustrations with the Raisi government’s posturing on the talks.

But Brett McGurk, the US National Security Council’s co-ordinator for the Middle East and north Africa, said this month that the administration was hopeful that a diplomatic solution could be reached. “But if it cannot find a way, we are prepared to use other options . . . we are not going to allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, period,” he told delegates at a Middle East conference.

Iranian hardliners are dismissive of what they perceive to be US threats and pressure.

Brigadier Gen Yadollah Javani, a deputy to the commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, said on Tuesday that Washington knew that “a [military] confrontation with Iran would be fruitless” and instead had chosen “a soft war” — negotiations. “Our enemies have realised that if they cannot rein us in by 2025 [when parts of the nuclear deal expire], they would never again be able to do so,” he said.

Despite the rhetoric, pro-reform Iranian politicians still hope that Tehran will secure a deal to ensure that sanctions are lifted and to ease the burden on the battered economy.

This hope is however fragile. Hossein Marashi, a reformist politician, said “developing nuclear technology seems more important than the economy for the political system”. “Iran’s negotiating team will surely follow the policies dictated to them which means we cannot be optimistic about the results of the talks,” he said.

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