Crunch time in Vienna

The nuclear negotiations underway in Vienna will be decisive on the question of whether the JCPOA can be revived

December 14, 2021 - 2 minute read

Crunch time in Vienna

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3 To Watch:

  1. Iran/Mid East: Prospects dim for current crucial round of JCPOA talks; negative outcome to lead to escalatory moves and potentially destabilise region.
  2. Libya: Outcome of elections unlikely to go unchallenged as process becomes increasingly contentious.
  3. Jordan: Reform plans tantamount to major shakeup of the political environment.

Note: This edition of 3 To watch was distributed in full on December 14.

1. Crunch time in Vienna 

The nuclear negotiations underway in Vienna will be decisive on the question of whether the JCPOA can be revived and Iran’s nuclear programme rolled back in exchange for sanctions relief. Expectations of a breakthrough are low for the following reasons:

  • Iran has incrementally increased enrichment levels to 60%, thereby reducing its breakout time to a number of months, and has restricted the IAEA’s access to its nuclear facilities.
  • The Biden administration has maintained Trump-imposed sanctions on the Iranian economy while also sanctioning individuals for human rights violations and missile activity.
  • The trust gap between all parties has widened significantly as a result. Tehran’s hardened negotiating position with a conservative team at the table is a further frustration.

Why This Matters:

The administration of hardliner President Ebrahim Raisi has demanded that the talks produce comprehensive nuclear sanctions relief and assurances that the JCPOA – and Iran’s economic benefits – are protected.

This latter issue is key for Tehran; having already weathered the pain of US sanctions, in its view the only beneficial deal is a stable one. Unless some insurance mechanism is created to protect the JCPOA from future political swings in the US similar to the 2018 withdrawal, it is unlikely that Tehran will reverse course on its nuclear leverage.

Alongside recent harsh words from the British and German foreign secretaries, the outlook for negotiations does not look good; nevertheless, the Vienna-based technical and legal negotiating teams have been exchanging papers on sanctions relief sequencing and Iranian compliance steps.

Should the talks conclude with no breakthrough, it is expected that the US, UK and EU position will align towards a strategy of increased pressure and sanctions. This will put in motion a dangerous escalatory cycle that could upset regional stability. Iran will undoubtedly receive a censure at the next IAEA’s Board of Governors meeting in early 2022, setting the scene for its referral to the UN Security Council; however, a security council resolution condemning Iran is unlikely to receive Russian and Chinese support.

Plan B scenarios will see controls of Iranian oil sales to China currently being overlooked and constraints on other non-sanctioned sectors. Iran for its part could increase enrichment to 90% levels and return to its past pattern of promoting instability throughout the region and on the seas. Israel, in turn, could attempt to directly set back the nuclear programme through a military strike.


By Sanam Vakil, Senior Adviser Azure Strategy; Deputy Director MENA programme Chatham House