November 29, 2021

CNAS Responds: Will the Iran Deal Be Revived in Vienna?

By Elisa Catalano Ewers

The U.S., UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China—along with the European Union High Representative—meet with Iranian representatives today in Vienna for the seventh round of talks for Iran and the U.S. to return to compliance with the 2015 Iran deal, or JCPOA. Resumption comes after a five-month hiatus and the assumption to power of a new Iranian president. Below, Elisa Ewers, Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Center for a New American Security’s Middle East Security program, weighs in with analysis of what to watch, expectations, and likely outcomes.

Read the latest report from CNAS' Middle East Security program: "When Less is More: Rethinking U.S. Military Strategy and Posture in the Middle East."

The language below may be quoted directly with attribution.

Context:

  • The timing of this resumption, after a five-month hiatus, is a yellow flag: it happens just after the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, held its board of governors meeting on November 24. This suggests Iranian efforts to avoid increased pressure and buy time. The IAEA head, Rafael Grossi, went to Tehran to press for resumed IAEA monitoring access, which seems to have failed. This denial of monitoring access has been one of Iran’s more concerning steps in recent months.
  • The Iranian rhetoric in the lead up to this meeting has been pointed: not only must all sanctions (including those levied by the Trump administration on “non nuclear” grounds) be removed, but the United States—and even European parties to the deal – must provide assurances that a withdrawal from the JCPOA would not happen in the future. The question remains: is this an Iranian tactic, meant to build opening bids for a real negotiation, or does it reflect a more calculated view that Tehran no longer sees value in returning to full compliance with the JCPOA?
  • The Biden administration's commitment to continued talks despite Iranian maximalist demands and continued Iranian provocations in the region—including most recent attacks on U.S. positions in Syria—puts the onus on Iran for any failure to produce a return to the JCPOA. But as recent administration statements indicate, the timeline for negotiations is not open-ended. At some point (probably soon) there is a threshold beyond which the JCPOA’s value is irrecuperable.

Expectations and What Comes Next:

  • This doesn’t mean diplomatic efforts should have an end point. But those efforts will need to be combined with other planning for what happens in lieu of a return to compliance with the original JCPOA—including considering something more modest aimed at freezing Iran’s nuclear program, setting the conditions to sharpen Iran’s choice to return to a serious negotiation, and efforts at shaping a post-JCPOA strategy.
  • Expectations for this first session are quite low. A good outcome would be a quick resurrection of the work that was done between April and June, where some progress was made on hashing out what a mutual return to compliance would look like. But this would require the new Iranian delegation to be ready to deal. That’s increasingly doubtful.
  • U.S. diplomatic efforts here are important and should continue, if only to continue to remain in lock step with European allies and signal to the rest of the international community. But pressure will only increase as Iran’s nuclear program continues to advance. The fact remains that most options outside the JCPOA are bad options.

Related Work:

  • Report: "When Less is More: Rethinking U.S. Military Strategy and Posture in the Middle East" (CNAS, October 2021)
  • Podcast: "Iran Deal Return Increasingly Uncertain" (War on the Rocks, July 2021)
  • Podcast: "Missiles, Mines, and the Future of U.S.-Iranian Diplomacy" (War on the Rock, March 2021)

To speak with Elisa or any other CNAS experts, please contact Sydney Simon at ssimon@cnas.org

Authors

  • Elisa Catalano Ewers

    Former Adjunct Senior Fellow, Middle East Security Program

    Elisa Ewers is a Former Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), with 20 years of experience in U.S. natio...