A moment of reckoning as the US and Iran prepare to resume talks in Doha

After a three-month-long suspension of the nuclear talks in Vienna, the U.S. and Iran appear set to resume diplomatic negotiations on June 28 in Doha, Qatar.

The Europeans will continue to act as messengers in Doha as they did during the talks in Vienna. In fact, this relaunch comes thanks to the shuttle diplomacy of the EU’s top foreign policy official, High Representative Josep Borrell. 

While it is too early to be optimistic about the outcome, the Iranians and the Americans both seem to believe the talks in Doha represent a sink-or-swim moment for U.S.-Iran nuclear negotiations. A couple of key factors are now in play that might provide momentum for the talks. 

Why the relaunch?

Iranian media are quoting officials in Tehran as saying that Iran has high hopes that the upcoming round of talks with the Americans will result in a comprehensive resolution of outstanding differences. 

The Iranian side is also apparently hopeful that the next rounds of talks will last no longer than two to three weeks, which was also mentioned by Borrell. If so, that would mean Washington could reach a new nuclear deal with Tehran before President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia in mid-July, when the issue of Iran is expected to be at the top of the agenda. 

Iranian sources point to a few hard realities that have pushed Tehran to resume talks and proceed at the fastest pace possible.  

First, differences among top officials within the Iranian regime on how to negotiate with the Americans are said to have been resolved. No serious political voices in today’s sanction-afflicted Iran will deny the importance of having Washington lift at least some of its sanctions.  

Second, as the U.S. moves closer to November 2022, Tehran likely assesses that it is better to try to strike a deal with the Biden White House before the upcoming congressional elections as the Democrats are likely to lose seats and be less interested in the fate of the Iranian nuclear program afterwards. 

Third, the high price of oil and lack of spare capacity mean that now is an opportune moment for Tehran to push to have the sanctions on its oil lifted and capitalize on the country’s significant oil export revenue potential, which could run in the hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

During his shuttle diplomacy to Tehran over the weekend, Borrell made sure to specifically highlight the economic benefits Iran could enjoy if it can reach a new agreement with the U.S. and its European allies by scaling back its nuclear program as agreed in the 2015 deal with the Obama administration.

As Borrell put it, a new deal “will be good from the point of view of Iran becoming a member of the international community, more active, participating in trade.” He linked the issue to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which he said has resulted in energy and food insecurity. 

“So, the more supply of oil, the better for the energy prices,” he said as he sought to incentivize his Iranian hosts. Incidentally, the French have also suddenly raised the possibility of Iranian oil as compensating the loss of sanctioned Russian output. 

Prospects for a sudden nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran might well have been the reason why Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was in Tehran last week. Officially, his visit focused on Iranian-Russian economic cooperation. But dissuading Tehran from cutting a deal with the Americans and the Europeans at the expense of Moscow was probably the more pressing reason for his trip.

Iran’s rationale 

The economic reasons for Iran to want to reach a new deal with the Americans are well known. Its economy is in freefall. Inflation is at around 50% and more and more segments of society are mobilizing against the Islamist regime led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

There is also another acute pressure point that the regime needs to urgently address, if it can.  

The lack of a resolution to its nuclear program has predictably turned Iran into a target for the Israelis, who fear the program more than any other country. 

As Israel has by all accounts deeply infiltrated the Iranian regime to sabotage its nuclear and military programs, a nasty blame-game has ensued in Tehran. 

This past week alone there was a major purge among the top ranks of the Revolutionary Guards, the entity that is responsible for overseeing all sensitive nuclear-military programs. 

Among those replaced was Hossein Taeb, who was for 12 years the head of the intelligence branch of the Revolutionary Guards. His sudden replacement was tantamount to an earthquake in Iran’s intelligence-security apparatus. 

The repeated Israeli penetration of the regime is not only deeply humiliating but it is also clearly fueling internal rivalries in Tehran that, if left unaddressed, could hollow out the Islamic Republic from within in ways few would have predicted just a few years ago.  

A year after Supreme Leader Khamenei engineered for his handpicked candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, to become president, Tehran has gone full circle. It was the American President Donald Trump who walked out on the 2015 nuclear deal, but the Raisi government is also guilty of needless delay in the Vienna talks just to make the point that it could strike a better deal with Washington than his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani. 

At the moment, there is nothing to suggest Raisi is about to secure a better deal in Doha. Nonetheless, here is another opportunity for Tehran to face some hard realities about its own bleeding economy, angry population, and Israel’s growing determination to find ways to push back against Iran, which in turn is pitting factions inside the regime in Tehran against one another. 

The upcoming U.S.-Iran talks in Doha are not just a sink-or-swim moment for the hopes of the Americans and the Europeans to keep the 2015 nuclear deal alive, but also a pivotal moment for Tehran and the future of the Islamic Republic.

 

Alex Vatanka is the director of MEI’s Iran Program and a senior fellow with the Frontier Europe Initiative. His most recent book is The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy and Political Rivalry Since 1979. You can follow him on Twitter @AlexVatanka.

Photo by Meghdad Madadi ATPImages/Getty Images

MEI is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.



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