Analysis of the Seventh Round of JCPOA Negotiations

The verdicts are in after the seventh round of the Iran nuclear negotiations paused on December 3: doom and gloom across the P5+1, most especially from the E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) and the United States. Iran came to the talks with maximalist and unworkable demands. As the international community awaits the resumption of dialogue—some reports suggest that it may happen as early as this week—three takeaways loom large: dead cat diplomacy is in full force; Iran is saying and doing enough to earn another meeting but not an agreement; and the Iranian establishment is deprioritizing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Dead cat diplomacy

Former US Secretary of State James Baker famously dubbed the tactic “dead cat diplomacy” to describe a situation where warring parties try to position themselves as the innocent party and label others as the guilty ones should a negotiation breakdown. As other observers like Aaron David Miller have also noted, the United States and Iran have already started this process. In the US readout from Vienna on Saturday, a senior State Department official tellingly remarked, “I assume that many countries share the same concerns that we have, if they were to conclude, if we were to conclude of the JCPOA that Iran had killed the JCPOA—not we had killed it, but Iran had killed it because of its inability, unwillingness to come back into compliance in a reasonable way and at a reasonable pace—then I assume that yes, there would be other sanctions that would come in, that would be triggered.” Indeed, unnamed Western diplomats separately indicated to Reuters “Washington’s unspoken goal may be to win support from China and Russia to pressure Iran if the talks fail.” Setting the table for this narrative—that Iran is the recalcitrant party, not the United States—is clearly part of the US strategy in Vienna, despite the US withdrawal from the JCPOA.

Iran has also attempted its own version of dead cat diplomacy. Nour News, which is linked to the Supreme National Security Council, showcased how Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani suggested that Tehran’s submission of two documents—one on nuclear and the other on sanctions—along with a plan to submit a third on verification is “clear and convincing proof” of its seriousness. The same report suggested that rather than respond to the documents Iran’s team submitted, Western countries “did not put any initiative on the table and practically slowed down the negotiation process” by requesting an adjournment.

But there was no mention that those Iranian proposals contained unserious demands—ones to which no US president, Democrat or Republican, would ever agree. Separately, on Sunday, an unnamed Iranian official went as far as to suggest “it is now clear that Washington’s reluctance to give up sanctions altogether is the main challenge to the progress of the talks.” In addition to boasting about its comprehensive proposals, Iran has repeatedly emphasized the expert nature of its 40-person strong team in Vienna, whose experience was heavily weighted towards economic rather than nuclear matters. This shows that Tehran’s strategy thus far is to hide behind the qualifications of its negotiation team and the fact that it submitted unanswered proposals which substantially reversed all agreements reached in previous rounds to deflect any blame should talks fail.

A meeting but not an agreement

While Iran’s negotiators continue to play hardball, they are still leaving themselves enough room to win support for continuing the talks to buy time to expand the regime’s nuclear program. This was apparent during the seventh round in Vienna in two respects. First, an Iranian diplomat was quoted as saying on December 3, “we see no impasse in the Iran talks. We’ve provided the other parties with clear-cut draft proposals and have encouraged them to come up with written responses or new ideas.” Thus, the framing of the Iranian documents as mere proposals is to prolong the talks themselves—with the hope of winning support from more sympathetic negotiating parties like China and Russia. Russian officials are already seizing on this opening to justify the continuation of the process.

The second sign of Iran demonstrating flexibility to earn more negotiating time was on the issue of guarantees. The Iranian system has for months demanded a guarantee that there would be no US withdrawal from the agreement again. However, that was not part of the original deal as a non-binding political agreement, and President Biden lacks the legal ability to bind his successors given the JCPOA’s current structure. Yet Iran’s deputy foreign minister for political affairs during an interview last week suggested some flexibility, saying “a guarantee could be applied in various areas and various sections.” This may be a tactic to further divide the P5+1 and thwart adverse diplomatic momentum.

A wild card is how the standoff over the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s access to the Karaj centrifuge workshop will be resolved. Since September, Iran has blocked the IAEA from servicing monitoring and surveillance equipment and replacing storage media at the Karaj complex, after it was damaged in a June sabotage operation. This is undermining the IAEA’s ability to guarantee continuity of knowledge into Iran’s nuclear program. With Washington threatening to support the convening of a special IAEA Board of Governors meeting before the end of the year should there be no resolution, Iran could at the last minute allow access to the Karaj site to buy even more time. In the coming days, Tehran may seek to employ these tools in its diplomatic toolkit, which could be enough to earn another meeting, but not enough to earn an accord at this juncture.

The lack of urgency in Tehran

The supreme leader has been notably silent on the Vienna nuclear negotiations in recent months. President Ebrahim Raisi rarely speaks of the Iran nuclear negotiations—and when he does, only briefly. This stands in contrast to his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, who spoke regularly on the nuclear file. In fact, in an hour-long interview Raisi gave to Iranian media on Sunday, he only devoted around one minute to the subject, while warning that Tehran “won’t link our economy to these issues.” Iran’s government is in fact planning its next budget reportedly on the assumption that US sanctions continue. This shows that the JCPOA may not be as high a priority for the Iranian establishment as it once was. Instead, for the time being, Iran calculates that using the Vienna negotiations as a cover to build its nuclear program, pivoting to Asia—particularly China, creating regional trade linkages, and implementing a resistance economy to neutralize sanctions is the focus of the system.

In the end, Iran feels emboldened because it does not fear the consequences of its escalation. For example, censure resolution after censure resolution before the IAEA Board of Governors has been put on hold to give space for diplomacy. The United States has been lax in enforcing sanctions and treaded carefully in responding to Iranian provocations in the region—most especially after the drone attack on the al-Tanf airbase in Syria in October. It only resulted in a hardened Iranian negotiating position. This is why a reset of US and E3 policy on Iran is long overdue—with more pressure needed to change Iran’s stalling calculus.

Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran. He is on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky.