What to expect from US-Iran indirect talks in Vienna

What to expect from US-Iran indirect talks in Vienna
The US and Iran will attempt to get relations back on track this Tuesday with indirect talks in Vienna. Here's what both sides are bringing to the table.
3 min read
06 April, 2021
Iran's President Rouhani is in the last two months of his presidency [Getty]
Washington DC, The New Arab - When the US and Iran enter into indirect negotiations in Vienna on Tuesday, it will be something of a gamble for both sides, as they cautiously wade into a potential deal that could set the trajectories for trade and security for them and other countries.

For Joe Biden's administration and the US, it means trying to get back into the Iran nuclear deal, ideally with additional concessions, before the Islamic Republic's June presidential election. For Iran's outgoing leader, President Hassan Rouhani, it means a return in full to the deal the US unilaterally withdrew from under former president Trump in favour of a severe economic blockade.

While the US and Europe are referring to the initial process as "indirect talks", Iran is not using this term.

"There's a lot of dance leading up to the negotiations. They want to make sure the talks don't break down," James Devine, associate professor of politics and international relations at Mount Allison University, told The New Arab.

Read more: Why all the mudslinging against Biden's new Iran envoy, Robert Malley?

"If they fail, they may not get another chance to do it again," he said. "This has been building for a long time."

These so-called indirect negotiations come just two months before Iran's presidential elections, in which the more conservative camp appears to have an advantage - a reality that could incentivise both sides not to delay these initial steps any further. The talks also come soon after Iran signed a substantial trade deal with China. That partnership could see Iran become less dependent on US trade - a scenario the US might avoid by reentering the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran.

Meanwhile, the European mediators have their own incentives for bringing the US back into the deal. Without it, almost any country that does business with Iran is subject to US sanctions due to the standard use of the US dollar. In the region, Qatar, which is also mediating, would also benefit from an Iran that is more economically open to the West.

Devine believes the US will try to extract more concessions from Iran

"Europe and Iran could be helpful. That's assuming the Americans want to go back to the original JCPOA," said Devine. "Biden doesn't want that."

Devine believes the US will try to extract more concessions from Iran, or might try to do the deal in pieces, both of which would be unacceptable to Iran. Moreover, both would have the potential of dragging out the deal past Iran's elections, which risks putting it in jeopardy.

"That's the elephant in the room. What if the deal is not done before the elections?" asks Devine.

In the US, Biden appears to have had his own issues with timing, contending with outspoken members of Congress who might have tried to thwart some of his cabinet appointees had he engaged with Iran earlier.

Dragging out the deal past Iran's elections risks putting it in jeopardy

"I personally think Biden was wrong to sit on this for so long," Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East politics at University of Michigan, told The New Arab, though he acknowledged that Biden might have faced pressure when he first took office.

The Biden administration will likely do what it can within specific constraints, and possibly take a risk with further ambitions.

"If the US is pushing for extra things to be added, it becomes a lot more complicated," says Devine, who questions how much of a gambler Biden will prove to be.

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington D.C., covering US and international politics, business and culture.

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