Vienna talks in shadow of Iran, US assertive policies

As next round of Iran-West talks near, focus on Tehran’s increased nuclear activities, US refusal to ease sanctions.

Vienna talks in shadow of Iran, US assertive policies

Stalemate over the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers continues as Tehran scales up its nuclear activities in the face of US refusal to return to the agreement.

The new government in Tehran, led by conservatives, has elicited interest in resuming the stalled talks in Vienna, but it is expected to adopt a different roadmap from the previous reformist government.

Conservatives in Iran have been staunch critics of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was hailed by the previous Hassan Rouhani administration as one of its foreign policy achievements.

Taking a radically different position from his predecessor, Iran's newly-appointed Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in his “vote of confidence” speech to parliament on Aug. 22 stressed that the new government will espouse an east-centric foreign policy, with a focus on neighbors.

“We will not tie our foreign policy to the nuclear agreement. We will not be a nuclear agreement ministry,” he said, much to the delight of the conservative-controlled parliament.

Without providing an exact date, Iran's Foreign Ministry has said that talks in Vienna will resume “soon,” but stressed that negotiations ought to be “result-oriented.”

“Our mandate is to engage in only result-oriented dialogue,” ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month, calling talks “for sake of talks” as a “non-starter.”

While the resumption of talks look imminent, the fact that Iran has turned down calls to scale down its nuclear enrichment at key nuclear sites and refused the UN nuclear watchdog access to an important nuclear facility in western Tehran for “servicing” the cameras is likely to play in the next round of talks.

Upping the ante

Earlier this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) alleged that Iran has “continued to increase” its stockpile of enriched uranium that it warned could be used to make nuclear weapons.

The watchdog, in its quarterly report released on Sept. 7, also alleged that its verification and monitoring activities have been “seriously undermined” due to Iran’s refusal to let its inspectors access nuclear sites.

The report noted that while Tehran has not installed any new advanced centrifuge cascades at the Natanz nor Fordow sites, its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20% rose to 84 kilograms (185 pounds) while the stockpile of 60% enriched uranium grew to 10 kilograms (22 pounds) between May and September.

Interestingly, it came weeks after IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said Iran launched a new cascade of advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium to 60% purity, referring to IR-4 centrifuges, in addition to the IR-6 centrifuges, as was first reported by Reuters.

In response, Iran’s envoy to the UN nuclear agency Kazem Gharibabadi said, “no one can tell” Iran to stop its nuclear activities as long as the US sanctions are in place, defending his country’s actions.

To ease tensions and prevent a vote against Iran at the IAEA meeting in Vienna, Grossi made a whirlwind visit to Tehran three weeks ago, during which Iran allowed the UN nuclear watchdog to "service" the surveillance cameras installed at its nuclear sites.

However, the UN agency last week alleged that Iran has "failed to fully honor" the terms of the deal reached on Sept. 12, by refusing access to a workshop that makes centrifuge components at the TESA Karaj complex in western Tehran.

"The (IAEA) Director General (Rafael Grossi) stresses that Iran's decision not to allow Agency access to the TESA Karaj centrifuge component manufacturing workshop is contrary to the agreed terms of the Joint Statement issued on 12 September," the IAEA said in a statement.

Iran rejected the report, calling it "biased" and "inaccurate." Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran's nuclear agency, said the joint statement did not cover the surveillance equipment at the Karaj complex, which he said is still under" security investigation" after the sabotage in June.

The US and the European countries lashed out at Tehran for its refusal to allow IAEA inspectors access the site, warning “diplomatic action” at the agency’s board meeting.

These unsavory developments have cast a shadow over the upcoming nuclear deal talks, as Iran and the US seek to negotiate from a position of strength.

Talks and tensions

Even though Iran has agreed to resume talks in the Austrian capital to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal, it will be a different ballgame under a new Iranian negotiating team led by newly appointed Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri, who has been a critic of the deal.

According to official sources, the new team’s approach will be in stark contrast to the previous team that was led by Javad Zarif’s deputy Abbas Aragchi, who is now an adviser to Amir-Abdollahian.

Iran’s roadmap in the upcoming talks was laid out by President Ebrahim Raeisi last week during his address to the UN General Assembly, when he said Iran is willing to hold negotiations on the nuclear deal, but the Biden administration must “lift sanctions at once.”

Amir-Abdollahian, who represented Iran at the summit, informed that Vienna talks will resume in "next few weeks" while stressing that the foreign policy team has not yet reached a conclusion on the roadmap for the upcoming talks.

The statements by both officials made it clear that the new Iranian government’s approach is likely to be more radical and uncompromising as against the previous government’s accommodating policy.

The new government’s approach in negotiations is likely to be in line with the parliamentary resolution adopted last year that calls for retaliatory measures against US sanctions.

The increase in uranium enrichment and production of new-generation centrifuges, as demanded by the parliamentary resolution last year, are seen as efforts to negotiate from a position of strength.

Unlike the previous government, the new government’s policies are more in sync with the parliament, as both are controlled by conservatives. Both seek to keep pressure on the US until sanctions are lifted.

This, however, is viewed with concern by the international community, which fears Iran might be on the road to building nuclear weapons, despite Tehran’s repeated dismissal of such concerns.

In recent months, multiple attacks were reported at key Iranian nuclear sites, including the one in Natanz in central Iran’s Isfahan province and another in Karaj, on the outskirts of Tehran.

The attacks, which Iran blamed on Israel, might have delayed the process of building a bomb.

Iran has responded to such concerns, stating that its nuclear program is of a peaceful nature and that the enrichment of uranium is in line with its civilian nuclear program.

In his UNGA speech, Raeisi asserted that the strategic policy of Iran prevents it from the production or stockpiling atomic weapons “based on religious decree,” while adding that the outcome of talks with the US should be “lifting of all oppressive sanctions.”

Withdrawal and tensions

Although Iran has always reeled under US sanctions since the 1979 revolution, triggered by the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran, the sanctions imposed by the previous US administration headed by Donald Trump in 2018 under its “maximum pressure campaign” have been crippling.

The unprecedented sanctions were imposed by the US administration after it unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal. Trump claimed the deal was “defective at its core.”

The deal signed in 2015 between Iran and world powers -- the US, Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany -- stipulated the limit of 3.67% uranium enrichment, which was seen as a “win-win” agreement by Iran and the international community.

Under the nuclear deal, Tehran was allowed to stockpile only 300 kilograms (661 pounds) of low-level enriched uranium besides 130 tons of heavy water.

After Trump pulled out of the deal on May 8 and re-imposed sanctions on Iran, Tehran expected European countries to take remedial measures to salvage the deal, while adopting a policy of "strategic patience."

A special payment mechanism called INSTEX was established by European countries in January 2019 to keep up trade with Iran, but the channel could not be activated because of US sanctions.

After European countries failed to deliver on their promises, Iran started to gradually scale back its commitments under the deal from May 8, 2019, one year after the US withdrawal.

In the last two years, the country has taken a number of steps, including the enrichment of high-level uranium, production of new-generation centrifuges, limited the access of UN inspectors to nuclear sites and stopping the voluntary implementation of the IAEA Additional Protocol.

One of the incidents that prompted Iran to take drastic measures was the assassination of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020. That is when parliament swung into action and passed a law that required the government to increase uranium enrichment up to 20%.

As part of the strategic action, new-generation IR-2, IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges were installed at nuclear facilities instead of the IR-1 centrifuges that were allowed under the nuclear agreement.

The measures sparked tensions as other parties to the nuclear agreement said they were "deeply concerned" about Iran's 20% uranium enrichment.

Four months later, in April 2021, Iran announced that it had increased enrichment process to 60% and informed the UN nuclear agency about the decision.

The decision to increase the enrichment of uranium from 20% and 60% purity sparked more concerns, as Western countries said Iran was making a nuclear weapon.

“This is a serious development since the production of highly enriched uranium constitutes an important step in the production of a nuclear weapon,” France, Germany and the UK said in a joint statement in April. “Iran has no credible civilian need for enrichment at this level.”

The move, interestingly, came in the wake of an attack on Iran’s main nuclear facility, Natanz, which Iranian officials blamed on Israel.

Since then, a new government has come to power in Tehran, which has a more confrontational stance to the US sanctions and negotiations to revive the nuclear deal.