After almost a year of negotiations, talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran are entering the 11th hour with signs on either side that talks are reaching what the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz described as “the moment of truth.” On Saturday French President Emmanuel Macron spoke for one and half hours with his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, to convince him to embrace a deal and hinted that talks had come to a solution respectful of all parties’ interests.
While the Americans say the deal is a few weeks away, the French talk about days. Attending the Munich Security Conference on Sunday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian also reiterated that Tehran wants the US to show “tangible steps of goodwill,” in a possible reference to freeing Iran’s blocked funds abroad.
The talks include a phased out revival where Iran would get back to 5 per cent uranium enrichment, unfreezing of Iranian assets abroad and the release of prisoners indicating reciprocal steps that aim at building confidence. US sanctions directly linked to Iran’s nuclear activities, slammed by the Donald Trump administration, would also be lifted. Aside from a few details — and incentives — the deal seems on the anvil.
Not limited to its nuclear activities
Even the Israelis who are against the revival of the deal appear to see it coming through. On Sunday Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that Iran may “shortly” agree to a new nuclear deal with major powers but warned it will be weaker than the original 2015 agreement. And his Defence Minister Benny Gantz warned in Munich that Iran’s threat is not limited to its nuclear activities but extends to its drone system and its regional proxies.
Talks on reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have been held in Vienna since mid last year and they involve Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia directly and the United States indirectly. The revival of the agreement has been a divisive issue in US presidential elections in 2020 and continues to be in US Congress.
Ironically, it is also a polarising issue for Iranian hardliners who called on the Raisi government to make sure that future US administrations cannot walk away from the agreement or impose the so-called “snapback mechanism”.
If the deal is revived, even for a short time — since the US midterm elections are a few months away and a Republican victory would bode ill for the future of the agreement in the 2024 presidential elections — it could mean a major shift in current regional politics. Despite hard-line opposition, the deal would be a major relief for a suffocating Iranian economy where domestic discontent is on the rise.
How the Iranian leadership will deal with sudden financial relief remains to be seen. Those opposed to any deal in the region will have to recalibrate their policies taking into consideration a number of factors including the fact that the US is slowly leaving the region, the aftermath of the current Russia-Ukraine standoff.
A starting point
On Saturday Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, said the Kingdom was looking to schedule a fifth round of direct talks with Iran despite a “lack of substantive progress” in previous rounds. He added that if the 2015 nuclear pact was revived that should be “a starting point, not an end point” in order to address regional concerns, and that Riyadh remained interested in talks with Iran.
While the revival of the nuclear deal with Iran may not cover critical issues like its regional agenda and its long-range missile and drone programmes, the onus will be on Tehran to change its behaviour and maintain good ties with its neighbours.
That would be a major geopolitical shift that could lead to a more secure and stable Middle East. Failing to adhere to a new good neighbourly policy would be amiss and a major miscalculation by Tehran.
Iran needs friends in the region and not enemies and it cannot do that by supporting non-state actors and other proxies. It is already a key regional player but it needs to understand that a new Middle East is emerging and that it has to behave as a normal state.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.