WASHINGTON – US and Iranian delegations will arrive in Vienna on Tuesday for an indirect round of negotiations about a possible return to the 2015 nuclear agreement.
“There can be reasons why two countries are unable to engage directly,” said Thomas Countryman, who served as assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation from 2011 to 2017. However, “in this case, the problem is not from the US side, but from the Iranian side, and it has to do with their own complex political situation. The countries in between – Britain, France, Germany, [and also] Russia and China, are trying to define what both Iran and the United States would have to do to return the JCPOA in full compliance.”
Indirect negotiations with a mediator are not an uncommon tool of diplomacy, he told The Jerusalem Post. The next step would be working out a schedule of either simultaneous or staged steps that each side will take within a certain period, he said.
“That’s the task,” Countryman said. But “obviously, it would be easier if the US and Iran were talking directly to each other about how we achieved the 2015 JCPOA.”
The door to diplomacy with Tehran is open, and yet it took both sides nearly three months to arrange a first, indirect meeting, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in his confirmation hearing.
“It has to do with complex politics in both Tehran and Washington,” said Countryman, who later served as acting under secretary of state for arms control and international security.
“In Washington, the president has many other priorities,” he said. “He doesn’t have his foreign-policy team confirmed by the Senate. Very importantly, he needs Congress in order to accomplish the urgent programs he has on COVID relief, economic stimulus, climate change, infrastructure. And there is some disagreement, even among the Democrats, about the right way to approach Iran.
“So he has been somewhat cautious in approaching this. He does want to hear a variety of voices, including from those in the Congress who may disagree with him, including from our friends in the Middle East who are Iran’s neighbors. But he’s also been clear and remains clear that the goal is to return to full compliance and afterwards to work on negotiating an agreement that builds on the way that addresses other issues.”
The Jerusalem Post: The original US position was, “If Iran comes to compliance, we will do the same.” It now seems like other options might be on the table, such as a return to mutual compliance, including sanction relief. Do you see it as a concession from the US side?
Countryman: “I see it as realism because both the US and Iran, in the absence of face-to-face negotiations, were making statements that said the other side needs to go first. In that kind of standoff, somebody has to come up with a more productive approach.
“That’s what the other parties to the agreement – who, unlike the US, are still in compliance with the document they signed – that’s what they’ve been working on, how to work it out so that neither side has to say, ‘We blinked first. We said we would not move first, and then we did.’
“It is a strange situation because both President Rouhani and I say we want full compliance by both sides. The goal is agreed [to] already, but deciding who will go first has been an issue. And as I say, the issue has been complicated in both capitals by very intense domestic politics.”
How does the upcoming election in Iran affect the timeline?
“I remain optimistic [that both sides could find a formula to return to the agreement,] but [it is] far from certain. In my experience as a diplomat, it is easier to negotiate with the people that you have negotiated with before.
“If this drags out until a new election in Iran, and there is a new president, both sides will still need some form of agreement. But working with a new team would be more difficult than what is possible right now. I have no inside information about the frustration, but I think that the Biden team understands that.”