Iran’s bargaining will be much tougher but a compromise also seems likely provided the US would seriously consider removing sanctions.

Efforts to restart talks aimed at bringing the United States and Iran fully back into the fold of the 2015 nuclear deal met a brick wall last week as Washington and its allies continued to pressure Iran to give the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, answers on details which Iran feels are designed to put it at a disadvantage at the talks. 

On Thursday Iran dismissed the IAEA's work as "unprofessional" and "unfair" and accused the IAEA Director-General, Rafael Mariano Grossi, of  “politicising” what should be technical inspections. 

“Since Grossi took office, the UN nuclear watchdog has been trying to politicise the case,” official news agency ILNA said, “that has nothing to do with the IAEA obligations.”

Iran became critical after the opening remarks by the IAEA chief expressing deep concern about lack of clarity on “four locations in Iran not declared to the agency” and “inadequate explanation for the presence of nuclear material particles in locations the IAEA had visited.”

Two days earlier Grossi had gone to Tehran and met his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Eslami, at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI). In their joint statement they had “reaffirmed the spirit of cooperation and mutual trust” and Eslami accepted to hold further talks in Vienna this week.

The European Union’s deputy Secretary General, Enrique Mora, tweeted that the statement gave “space for diplomacy.” And the Russian ambassador to the IAEA, Mikhail Ulyanov, said the visit “eased tension.” 

So on a positive note, as the IAEA Board of Governors convened on Monday last week its key members namely the United States, UK, Germany, France and Russia, who are also signatories to Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA, decided not to push for a resolution against Iran, hoping this would encourage Iran to be more constructive. 

Since 23 February when Iran blocked monitoring, the IAEA has been increasingly concerned over Iran’s nuclear activities and hoped to persuade Iran to return to stalled talks for the full implementation of the 2015 deal that former US President Donald Trump broke off in 2018. 

Additionally the IAEA Board of Governors was keen to test the approach of Iran’s new President, Ebrahim Raisi, who had said “non-constructive action” would disrupt future negotiations on the JCPOA.  

On Tuesday Iranian hardline press reminded Grossi of Iran’s parliamentary bill of December 2020, which required AEOI to “raise uranium enrichment levels to 20% and install advanced centrifuges."  The hardline Vatan Emruz newspaper accused Grossi of “finding excuses for blaming Iran to give the Americans an advantage in any future talks.” 

As if directly responding to Grossi’s opening statement, on Tuesday  Iran’s new Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, chose a fiercely anti-Western new deputy to deal with negotiations. Ali Baqeri-Kani replaces the softer-toned Abbas Araqchi, who has surprisingly been sidelined despite his mastery of the terms of the JCPOA. 

Baqeri was in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's ultra-hardline cabinet and a protege of Saeed Jalili, the former Iran negotiator who never came to any form of accommodation with the West. 

Baqeri is well connected to the clerical establishment and to President Raisi who chose him as his deputy when he was heading the judiciary.  Some analysts even saw Baqeri as a “top contender to replace Javad Zarif” as the foreign minister.

So in a matter of two days the shine wore off and now it is not clear what the impact of these exchanges will be on the JCPOA talks. 

Last week the US Special Envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, tweeted enthusiastically about his meetings with the EU and E3 officials in Paris “about the future of JCPOA talks and the importance of a quick return to mutual compliance.” He also held meetings with Russian deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, and discussed “shared goals of a return to negotiations and quick mutual resumption of compliance with the JCPOA.” 

Judging by the tone of Raisi’s recent conversation with the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, Iran is eyeing the possibility of driving a wedge between the US and the EU but at the same time finding a way of lifting the US sanctions and accessing international currency. Economic pressure is mounting, and a huge concern is the increasing social unrest.

To that end Foreign Minister Amirabdollahian is in New York to attend the UN General Assembly where he is due to speak to JCPOA partners possibly working on the concept of “strategic autonomy” that the European Council defines as important. 

This week’s meetings between Grossi and Eslami possibly at the IAEA’s 65th General Conference in Vienna on the one hand, and the scheduled meetings by Amirabdollahian at the UNGA in New York will be crucial to the survival of the JCPOA. 

President Raisi is new to the game and therefore keen to assert his authority both on the international scene and for domestic audiences. So, Iran’s bargaining will be much tougher but a compromise also seems likely provided the US would seriously consider removing sanctions, especially on Iran’s oil and banking sectors.

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