Western diplomats cautioned Tehran on Sunday that talks to resurrect its nuclear agreement would not be able to continue indefinitely, following the announcement of a pause following the election of a new hardline president in Iran.
Negotiations in Vienna have been continuing since April to determine how Iran and the US can both return to compliance with the nuclear agreement, which Washington abandoned in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump and Iran later breached.
The negotiations were paused on Sunday after Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner and harsh opponent of the West, won Iran’s presidential election on Friday. Two diplomats said they expected a break of around 10 days.
Raisi will enter office in early August, succeeding moderate Hassan Rouhani, under whom Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in exchange for the easing of international sanctions.
Raisi’s ascension, according to Iranian and Western sources, is unlikely to change Iran’s negotiation position: Iran’s conservative Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei already has ultimate say on all important policy decisions.
Nonetheless, some Iranian officials have hinted that Tehran may be interested in hastening a deal before the next president takes office in August, in order to provide Raisi with a clean slate.
An Iranian government official close to the talks told Reuters that if a deal is finalised before Raisi takes office, the new president will be able to deflect blame for any concessions onto his predecessor: “Rouhani, not Raisi, will be blamed for any future problems regarding the deal,” he said.
Britain, France and Germany, the European “E3”, have effectively been acting as mediators, shuttling between the Iranian delegation and a U.S. team that – Washington having quit the pact – is not a formal participant.
The Western countries say the longer Iran violates the deal and produces banned nuclear material, the harder it becomes to restore the pact.
“As we have stated before, time is on nobody’s side. These talks cannot be open ended,” E3 diplomats said in a note sent to reporters, adding that the most difficult issues still need to be resolved.
European External Action Service (EEAS) Deputy Secretary General Enrique Mora and Iranian Deputy at Ministry of Foreign Affairs Abbas Araghchi wait for the start of a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria April 17, 2021. EU Delegation in Vienna/Handout via REUTERS
U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan echoed those comments telling broadcaster ABC News that there was still “a fair distance to travel”, including on sanctions and on the nuclear commitments that Iran has to make.
With the talks on pause, attention will now turn to extending a separate accord between Iran and the U.N. nuclear watchdog IAEA, which expires on June 24. Iran has ended extra monitoring measures that were introduced under the 2015 deal.
EU political director Enrique Mora, who is coordinating the nuclear talks, said he expected an extension that would let data continue to be collected while placing limits on the IAEA’s access to it for now.
RAISI UNDER U.S. SANCTIONS
While the rise of a hardliner to succeed Rouhani was expected, it could play into the hands of the deal’s opponents on the right in the United States, and in Israel and Arab countries, who say Iran is not reforming and not trustworthy.
On Sunday, Israel’s incoming Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, declared that a Raisi administration would be a “regime of brutal hangmen” with whom global powers should not negotiate a new nuclear agreement.
Raisi is sanctioned by the US for his role in the extrajudicial death of thousands of political detainees in 1988, according to the US and human rights organisations. He has never responded publicly to such claims.
Raisi, like Khamenei, has backed the nuclear talks as a way to end US sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy. Several Iranian officials stated that the present negotiation team will remain in place for the foreseeable future.
“Who Raisi picks as his foreign minister will reveal the new government’s foreign policy approach,” said another official, reiterating that nuclear policy was decided by Khamenei.
Reporting by Dubai Newsroom, Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by Louise Heavens