In the final round
Neither Russia nor China can afford to come to the rescue. Yassamine Mather shows that for Iran a great deal hangs on the results of the Vienna negotiations
After months of discussion at the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action talks in Vienna, Iran’s minister of foreign affairs, Amir Abdollahian, admitted on January 24 that its representatives might enter direct talks with the United States regarding the nuclear deal, however it has not done so yet:
Reports saying that Iran and the US are directly negotiating with one another are untrue, however if we get to a stage where reaching a good deal with strong guarantees necessitates direct talks with the US, we will consider it.
In 2018, after Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the nuclear deal and reimposed crippling sanctions against Tehran, the country’s supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, banned any direct talks with the US. That is why, throughout the last few months, we have had the farce of the negotiations in Vienna taking place in separate rooms, with the UK, France, Germany and at times Russia and China acting as intermediaries.
According to tweets by one of them, a certain Shamkhani:
Contact with the American delegation in Vienna has been through informal written exchanges, and there was no need, and will be no need, for more contact, so far ... This communication method can only be replaced by other methods when a good agreement is available.
In mid January, however, Khamenei appeared to soften his line, and implied during a speech that he will not object to direct talks: negotiating with the “enemy”, he said, did not mean “surrendering.”
On January 30 French president Emmanuel Macron held a telephone conversation with his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi. According to Macron’s office, the French president:
reiterated his conviction that a diplomatic solution is possible and imperative, and stressed that any agreement will require clear and sufficient commitments from all the parties ... Several months after the resumption of negotiations in Vienna, he insisted on the need to accelerate in order to quickly achieve tangible progress in this framework.
Last week we also heard that Richard Nephew, a senior US negotiator working to revive the Iran nuclear deal, has left the negotiating team amid a report of differences of opinion on the way forward. According to the Wall Street Journal and the Times of Israel, he had advocated a tougher stance in the current negotiations. The Iranian press is also claiming that he was the architect of the most severe sanctions against Iran.
Inevitably, this news has given rise to speculation that the talks are entering a crucial stage. All delegations have returned to their respective capitals.
In Iran, debates continue about Raisi’s visit to Moscow, where, despite public declarations of keeping ‘close ties’, the discussions were disappointing for the Islamic Republic. Prior to the visit there had been talk of a 20-year economic cooperation deal between the two countries and this had been hailed by the new administration in Tehran as part of a ‘strategic cooperation with Russia’. However the two sides did not manage to come to an agreement, and Raisi left with only promises that the Russian president will consider a new draft of the potential agreement.
Given the existing sanctions against Russia and the prospects of new sanctions regarding Ukraine, it is clear that Putin does not want to risk getting into a trade and development agreement with sanctioned Iran. So the future of the deal will depend on a successful nuclear agreement and the lifting of US sanctions.
Because of the effects of sanctions and its own economic difficulties, Iran has failed to pay its debt to Rosatom, a Russian state-owned company involved in the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran. This was part of a major project. However, its implementation stopped in 2020, again because of US sanctions.
No military deal was reached during Raisi’s Moscow visit. The only compensation was the announcement of joint military drills. To add insult to injury, social media was soon flooded with videos that appeared to show disrespect for the Iranian president in terms of how he was greeted at various events - eg, the long table used in the official visit to the Kremlin, with Putin and Raisi sat at the two extremes of this table. There were complaints by some Iranian officials that the welcome for the Iranian president was, at times, disrespectful: he was greeted by lower ranking officials; receptions were unfriendly; and his official car was not available at the end of one meeting, leaving officials running in the forecourt of the Kremlin, calling for the car to be moved forward.
Throughout 2021 there was a lot of hype about the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement signed between China and Iran, which will cover the two countries’ economic, political and military cooperation for the next 25 years. Rightwing Iranians, in particular the supporters of the loony Mojahedin Khalgh group, as well as Iranian royalists, were telling fellow Iranians that the leaders of the Islamic Republic had sold the country’s resources, land and sea to the Chinese for little money, moving Iran totally into the Chinese sphere of influence.
But, of course, the deal is nothing of the kind. In fact China has very similar agreements in place with a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In this case, however, the Chinese have made it absolutely clear that the implementation of the China-Iran deal will depend entirely on the resumption of the JCPOA - in other words, on the success of the Iran nuclear talks.
So while Raisi was in Moscow, his foreign minister visited China, so far the only country able to buy Iranian oil - in exchange for Chinese goods. However, in Beijing, Amir Abdollahian got the same message as Raisi in Moscow. When it comes to future investment, trade and economic deals, if Iran wants to catch up with its neighbours it should sign up to JCPOA. China is not going to risk US sanctions for the sake of better relations with Tehran.
East nor west
When the Islamic Republic first came to power, its founder, ayatollah Khomeini, had a slogan: “Neither east nor west” (na sharghi, na gharbi). This was a reference to the US and its allies on the one hand, and the USSR and its bloc on the other. Even then, everyone knew that, in practice, Iran maintained economic relations as well as secret political relations with both sides - so the popular version of this slogan was “both east and west” (ham sharghi, ham gharbi).
Contrary to claims of Iran’s senior ayatollahs, in the late 20th century and in the 21st, no country is in a position to become economically independent of global capital. The occasional deals with the then Soviet bloc, and nowadays with China or Russia, depended, and continue to depend, on political subservience to the hegemon power: the United States. The Iranian government is clearly very disappointed by the responses of China and Russia to its recent efforts to find a way out of the current impasse in the nuclear deal talks. Both Russia and China have made it abundantly clear that any economic or trade deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran will be conditional on the success of the JCPOA talks. No-one in their right mind should have expected Moscow or Beijing to come to Iran’s rescue.
So now, when all delegations to the Vienna nuclear talks have gone back to their respective countries for consultations, before what the Americans call the final round, the situation is quite clear: Iran has to sign up to the new JCPOA or face further harsh sanctions, including secondary sanctions. Even if they wanted to, neither China nor Russia can do much to change the situation.