The veterans of the Iranian file know it well: the theatrical declarations and the postures always accompanied the millimeter and technical research of a compromise on the nuclear program of the Islamic Republic. The one signed in 2015, although imperfect, represented a rare success in multilateral diplomacy. Today, its signatories are trying to revive it. A small step, expected since the arrival of Joe Biden at the White House at the end of January, has finally been taken in this direction, Friday, April 2, after weeks of trial and error.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA), made up of representatives from Iran, China, Russia, France, Germany and the United Kingdom , met by videoconference, under the authority of the High Representative of the European Union, Josep Borrell. The United States, for the time being, were excluded, having left the agreement.
A meeting, physical this one, is fixed for Tuesday April 6, in Vienna, to continue the exchanges. It will then be a question of setting the first sequence of the choreography aiming at an American return to the JCPoA and bringing Tehran back into conformity, in relation to its commitments, under the agreement.
Joint diplomatic push
Those involved in the file decided not to sew these two parts together, but on the contrary to treat them separately. Success is far from guaranteed, but the rare peculiarity of this negotiation lies in the common diplomatic push between the Europeans, the Americans, the Russians and the Chinese, despite nuances of perspective among the latter two protagonists.
In order to obtain this first preparatory contact, the Europeans gave up at the last moment, on March 3, to table a resolution before the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This text aimed to denounce the reduction in the means of verification available to IAEA inspectors in Iran, due to the abandonment, on February 23, of the additional protocol of the JCPoA by the Iranian regime. Beijing and Moscow had judged that this European initiative fell badly.
The Iranians, for their part, have been particularly careful in recent months to accumulate negotiating chips, to approach any compromise offer from a stronger position. At this stage, they reject direct negotiations with the United States, even in the presence of the other signatories to the agreement. The lack of mutual trust remains very powerful, since the unilateral American withdrawal from the JCPoA, decided by Donald Trump, in May 2018.
Don’t lose face
In the process, from the spring of 2019, the Iranians gradually organized the violation of their commitments on the quantity of low-enriched uranium, the resumption of the production of uranium enriched to 20%, research and development capacities, the number and modernity of centrifuges or uranium metal. This headlong rush is of great concern to the experts, who believe that the time needed to obtain the bomb and the militarization of this skill has been considerably reduced.
An American delegation will travel to Vienna to participate informally in diplomatic exchanges between the parties. Washington and Tehran will communicate indirectly, from room to room, through the other signatories. Paris, Berlin and London, which spent the Trump years saving the JCPoA from complete scuttling, until openly opposing Washington in August 2020, are now playing a more traditional, but nonetheless delicate score.
“The role of E3 countries [France, Allemagne, Royaume-Uni] is very important for the Americans and the Iranians to talk to each other, underlines a European diplomat, very familiar with the matter. Already in 2015, it would have been very difficult for them to come to an agreement without this multilateral framework. ” Both parties share an obsession, that of not losing face, of not appearing desperate or naive.
“On the right track”
The Americans have therefore sent signals about the Iranian presidential elections in June, by not making them a constraining horizon in relation to the nuclear issue. This falls exclusively under the authority of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
The caution of the White House also responds to domestic considerations. Joe Biden has to reckon with Congress, where the idea of revitalizing the JCPoA is far from unanimous. On the contrary, for the Americans – and the Europeans – it is necessary to go further, to strengthen the parameters of this agreement, then to approach the issue of the Iranian ballistic program from a regional security perspective.
For their part, the Iranians are still calling for an immediate – at least partial – lifting of American sanctions, in order to be able to show their public opinion an immediate financial gain. Different formulas have been studied in recent weeks, without consensus to date, so that everyone makes an effort. “It looks like we are on the right track, but the path will not be easy and requires intense effort. The stakeholders seem ready for that ”, underlined on Twitter Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian ambassador in Vienna near the international organizations.