According to the Biden administration, significant progress is being made at nuclear talks in Vienna to bring the United States back into the 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). Biden officials claim there will be a “compliance for compliance” agreement under which the United States will rejoin the deal and drop sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. In exchange, Iran will fully meet its obligations under the JCPOA.
It may seem that Biden is on the brink of a major achievement, but when diplomatic agreements are the goal—rather than a tool to address a threat—it is not necessarily a victory. Here’s why.
Let’s start with the diplomatic process in Vienna. These are “indirect” talks because Iran refuses to allow its diplomats to meet personally with American diplomats. Under this process, Iranian and American diplomats are in different hotels and European diplomats carry proposals between the two delegations.
The Iranians refused to directly negotiate with the United States. This was an enormous snub that gave Tehran a clear advantage in the nuclear talks since it proves Biden wants a deal more than Iranian leaders do. They can now leverage the talks themselves as a mechanism to highlight American weakness and supposed despair, and to project their own strength.
Making this situation worse, Iranian diplomats are coordinating their position with other JCPOA party diplomats—France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union, China, and Russia—before Iran’s offers are presented to U.S. diplomats. This allows China and Russa to have a say over Iran’s terms for the U.S. return to the nuclear deal. Those most affected by Iran’s ambitions, however, including Israel and Iran’s Gulf state neighbors appear to be sidelined entirely, with the United States formally saying that nothing Israel would say at this point will change its position.