High-stakes talks to salvage the Iran nuclear deal with potentially profound implications for the Middle East will resume on Friday, in what the French foreign minister has called a “moment of truth” for relations between the west and Tehran.
The fourth round of talks have the capacity not just to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation in Iran, but propel Saudi Arabia and Iran towards softening a rivalry that has darkened and destabilised the region’s politics for a decade.
But all sides admit the Vienna talks are finely balanced and could end without an agreement, partly due to domestic political pressures on both sets of negotiators. A deadline of sorts is looming since an ad hoc agreement struck between Iran and the UN nuclear inspectors ends on 21 May, and if it is not renewed the UN will have little effective access to Iran nuclear sites. The UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, has said the talks must wrap up by the start of June.
The Iranian presidential election on 18 June is already destabilising Iran’s foreign ministry, as hardline candidates campaign against a renewed deal and seize on leaked audiotapes of an interview by the foreign minister, Javad Zarif, in which he admitted Iran’s diplomats had always been totally subservient to the Revolutionary Guards.
A US state department official said the pace would have to accelerate but that a deal was doable so long as Iran was realistic and had made the political decision to return to compliance.
There is a question as to whether Iran understands fully that we cannot get into a situation where the US does more than is required by the deal by way of sanctions relief and Iran does less than is required in terms of nuclear compliance,” the official said. “It is not yet clear that Iran is prepared to recognise those realities.”
Iran’s chief negotiator in Iran and deputy foreign minister, Seyed Abbas Araghchi, is under pressure from the Americans and Europeans to set out the specific steps Iran will take to come back into compliance with the deal, known as the joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA), including whether it is prepared to destroy or mothball some of its new advanced centrifuges installed over the past 18 months.
Iran has taken a series of steps away from the constraints set out in the 2015 nuclear deal, including using more advanced centrifuges, arguing it was a legitimate response to Donald Trump pulling the US out of the deal in 2018. The 2015 deal restricted Iran for 10 years to 5,050 IR-1 centrifuges that are relatively antiquated and enrich uranium 10 times more slowly than the IR-6 machines, of which Iran has now installed at least 150.