Opinion | Vienna talks: Rekindling hope 

Written By: Akanksha Swarup
New Delhi Published: Apr 03, 2021, 10:31 PM(IST)

US President Joe Biden and Iran President Hassan Rouhani Photograph:( AFP )

Story highlights

The Vienna announcement comes just days after Iran and China agreed on a sweeping 25-year trade and security cooperation pact that could lead to increased oil flows from Tehran to Beijing along with cooperation in Banking, Finance and Insurance. It's important to note that China is Iran's biggest trading partner. And if the US must counter China's clout in trade, it must begin by the partial lifting of sanctions

The Iran Nuclear deal was a signature foreign policy achievement of Barack Obama's administration. After more than two years of gruelling negotiations, the agreement was reached upon in 2015 in Vienna between Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council i.e. China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States—plus Germany together with the European Union. As a result, Iran's nuclear ambitions were tightly restricted in return for the lifting of sanctions that crippled Iran's economy prior to the deal.

Chaos ensued when Donald Trump announced his exit from The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA in May 2018 promising to negotiate a new deal, one that could completely curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions. Sanctions on Iran were brought back, more than 1500 in total. A trans-Atlantic clash awaited western powers France, Germany and Britain as they faced the prospect of American sanctions for doing business with Iran.  The former U.S. president's maximum pressure strategy with Iran failed as miserably as it did with North Korea.

And just like Donald Trump's campaign promise in 2016, the Iran Nuclear Deal featured again on Biden's 2020 election campaign too, only this time Biden promised to revive it. Cut to April 2021, Iran and the West will be back at the negotiating table in Vienna. While Tehran has ruled out face-to-face bilateral discussions, the White House is also not expecting any direct talks for now but there is a strong possibility of indirect talks between the parties. Officials from both sides will be travelling to Vienna next week. This is how one European diplomat put it, "Iran and the U.S. will be in the same town -- but not the same room."

The decision to resume the talks in Vienna -- follows Friday's virtual meeting attended by Iran, China, Russia, France, Germany and Britain. The upcoming talks will focus on creating a list detailing the sanctions that America can lift and the nuclear obligations that Iran should meet. Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif is understandably upbeat about the outcome and is now voicing support for the removal of sanctions and a gradual return to nuclear obligations. The Iranian foreign minister's reaction is a sharp contrast to his remarks in January when he accused Europe of not doing enough to protect the nuclear deal. Perhaps, that accusation can now be ruled out with the EU confirming the talks in the Austrian capital, hinting at playing a more active role.

The Vienna announcement comes just days after Iran and China agreed on a sweeping 25-year trade and security cooperation pact that could lead to increased oil flows from Tehran to Beijing along with cooperation in Banking, Finance and Insurance. It's important to note that China is Iran's biggest trading partner. And if the US must counter China's clout in trade, it must begin by the partial lifting of sanctions and by turning a blind eye to foreign western investments in Iran in fields of manufacturing, steel and aluminium companies, even banks. There's no doubt that Biden is walking a tight rope in a deeply divided US Congress when it comes to the issue of Iran. Also, much of the trajectory of the negotiations rests upon Iran's elections scheduled to be held in June, one that could see anti-US hardliners prosper. 

The two countries will now need to work upon a framework wherein Iran can be complied into taking verifiable steps. Iran's hardball tactics have been marked by an increase in uranium enrichment and its limited access of nuclear facilities to IAEA, the UN atomic watchdog. So, for Biden the revival of the Nuclear deal is imperative and must be accompanied by a sense of urgency.

For India too, America's return to the JCPOA could arrive as a welcome relief. There was a time when India's trade with Iran was worth billions of dollars. So much so, Iran would sell oil to India in exchange for rupees which the country used to import Indian agricultural commodities. But soon after the US sanctions waiver expired, India stopped buying Tehran's oil in May 2019. According to India's Ministry of Commerce and Industry's data provided to news agency Reuters, India's overall exports to Tehran fell by 42% in 2020 amounting to $2.2 billion compared to 2019. This is the lowest figure in over a decade. The fall is expected to continue well into 2021. From strategic partnerships like the Chahbahar Port in southern Iran to Indian oil and gas exploration in Iran's Farzad B gas field, from agricultural supplies like rice to Indian export of automobile components and chemicals to Iran, India's trade potential with Iran can have massive long-term benefits. But clearly, the US sanctions have hit the India-Iran trade hard.

A credibility deficit created by Donald Trump will have to be addressed on priority by the Biden administration. Perhaps it is because of this trust deficit that Iran has rejected a phased lifting of sanctions. With Iran elections on the horizon, time is of the essence. There can be no progress without America's willingness to compromise. 

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)

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