First time round, in 2016: John Kerry and Javad Zarif

Not in the room

With the US still not directly involved in the negotiations, Yassamine Mather considers prospects for a revived nuclear deal

After weeks of speculation, negotiations began on April 6 in Vienna between representatives of Iran, France, the UK, Germany, Russia, China and the EU. This is likely to be the first part of a lengthy and difficult process to bring the US back into the nuclear deal and pave the way for Iran’s reversal of its recent increase in the level of uranium enrichment.

First indications that talks were underway came from US secretary of state Antony J Blinken, who informed European foreign ministers on April 2 that the United States would join them in seeking to restore the 2015 nuclear accord, which he said “was a key achievement of multilateral diplomacy”.

In response to this, the Iranian foreign ministry has maintained the position initially declared by the country’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, that they will not enter into “direct” negotiations with the USA until the sanctions it had imposed were removed. Deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi told reporters on April 4 that there would be no direct or indirect talks with the US - that was one day before heading to Vienna, where those much-anticipated talks were to be held. He insisted: “Our main condition is that the United States first fulfils all its obligations and removes all sanctions, and then we verify them and return to full compliance.” According to foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the US has imposed, reimposed or relabelled some 1,600 sanction measures on Iran, inflicting $1 trillion worth of direct and indirect economic damage.

Although Iran wants sanctions to be removed before any direct talks, it is unclear how the US intends to revoke these sanctions or how many sanctions will eventually need to be lifted before Iran will agree to return to the conditions imposed on the country’s nuclear development by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding uranium enrichment. According to the US special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, who is leading the US delegation in Vienna, his goal was to “see whether we could agree on a road map back to compliance for both sides”. He said that the US knew it was “going to have to lift those sanctions that are inconsistent with the deal that was reached with Iran”.1

On April 3, a spokesperson for Iran’s foreign ministry rejected a US proposal to gradually lift the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. However, despite all the rhetoric from both sides, headlines are already indicating the aims of Vienna. On April 2 they were all telling the same story: “US and Iran agree to resume talks on nuclear deal” (Wall Street Journal); “Vienna meeting signals new push to revive Iran nuclear deal” (Politico); and “Iran nuclear deal: US takes first steps to rejoining accord with talks next week” (Sky News).

But there were to be no official face-to-face meetings between Iranian and US officials - the US team was in the Austrian capital for “separate contacts”. The US delegation was even staying in a different hotel to the Iranian team, presumably to avoid bumping into them in the corridor, and there was talk of three separate rooms used in the Grand and Imperial hotels in the Austrian capital, where the negotiations are taking place. The scenarios of who was where at any time varies according to news agencies, but it appears that the American team were in one room and the Iranians in another, with the Europeans shuttling between them. What is not clear is where Russia and China fitted into all this, but it is assumed they were in the same room as the main European/Iran negotiating teams.

Of course, all this was simpler when the UK was part of the EU, but when it comes to the details of the negotiations, it is expected that France, Germany and the UK will present some kind of a united front. According to EU communiqués, the Vienna talks aim to resolve or at least make progress on two issues: identifying steps the US must take on sanctions, on the one hand; and those Iran must take on its nuclear programme, on the other.

The first round of talks finished on April 6, with Russia’s ambassador to international organisations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, claiming this round was “successful”, with two expert-level groups on sanctions-lifting and nuclear issues given the task of identifying concrete measures to move forward. Ulyanov added that the experts began their work immediately, but warned that the restoration of the deal would not happen quickly. However, “The most important thing ... is that practical work towards achieving this goal has started.”

All this is following the pattern of negotiations in 2015-16, when ‘expert teams’ dealt with details between ministerial meetings. And it is likely that the discussions will lead to a deal, because Iran’s economy is facing total collapse, partly as a result of sanctions, while for its part the US does not want to see Iran become an ally of China or Russia.


In late March, Iran and China finally signed the much-talked-about 25-year deal. Some details remain secret, Iran claiming at China’s request, with pro-Tehran commentators claiming that China has made more concessions to Iran than to any other country in the region. Contrary to comments made by rightwing Iranian analysts, it seems China is very keen for the Iran nuclear deal to progress. According to Iran’s foreign minister, “We were able to jump-start the China strategic deal thanks to the signing of JCPOA. Before that the Chinese were not replying to our overtures.” Chinese leaders have themselves made similar statements in the past.

As I wrote last year,2 none of the sensational claims made by the Iranian pro-Trump opposition were true. There are no plans for a “land grab”, and no Iranian island has been sold/given to the Chinese … In fact, as many foreign affairs commentators have pointed out, the agreement - certainly what has been published so far - deals with other non-binding matters, with no specific contracts agreed. For example, there is a general agreement about the proposed sale of Iranian oil, presumably at a low price, to China for the next 25 years in exchange for Chinese investments in airports and ports, telecommunications and transport, oil and gas fields, infrastructure and banking, whereby China will acquire Iranian assets as it helps address Iran’s unmet investment needs.

Last month a number of media outlets were quoting a figure of $400 billion and rumours of this still persist. Persian-language social media is full of messages from pro-Trump Iranian rightwingers calling on their compatriots to “take back our country from China”. As always, fake news has created its own bandwagon, where hard facts deter no-one.

As for the long-term future of Iran’s economy, we should remember that US sanctions, including those imposed by Donald Trump, are only part of the problem. At a time when most of the world, including the United States itself, is rethinking the dominant role of the market, espousing state intervention to rebuild the economy in the post-Covid era; at a time when the Biden maladministration seems to be ditching the neoliberal economic policies that have dominated western capitalism since the Reagan/Thatcher era: the Iranian regime remains a steadfast supporter of more privatisation and reduced state intervention in the economy.

This, combined with endemic corruption, has paved the way for economic collapse and, even if the country can revive the nuclear deal, it is unlikely that the removal of sanctions, combined with renewed economic trade with western Europe, China and to a lesser extent Russia, will benefit the impoverished and suppressed Iranian working class. But at least, if sanctions are removed, the regime will have one less excuse for the current economic situation, and ‘insiders’ (those close to the centres of power) who circumvented sanctions and made huge profits from the black market, will have to find other ways to make money in the corrupt Islamic capitalist Republic.

  1. bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-56643178.↩︎

  2. ‘Boost to Beijing’s ambitions’ Weekly Worker August 6 2020.↩︎