1. Kicking off nuclear talks, in separate rooms
First, the setting.
Attending the meeting, which will take place in Vienna, will be representatives of the five signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal: France, the UK, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union, as well as, of course, Iran.
Absent from the table will be the United States, which dropped out of the nuclear deal in 2018 under former president Donald Trump. This makes the negotiating a little more challenging since the purpose of this meeting is to start the process of getting both Iran and the U.S. back into compliance, thus allowing for the renewal of the accord.
But not to worry, the Americans will be around. While not attending the negotiating room in person, the U.S. is sending senior officials to Vienna, to be on hand for consultations as needed. The U.S. has made clear it is willing to sit directly with the Iranians. Iran, for its part, declared that it has no interest in meeting the U.S. delegates and that the only role for Washington is to remove all sanctions it has imposed on Iran since 2018.
2. Modest expectations on both sides
The theatrics of these negotiations are already taking shape.
Iran will play the role of the reluctant partner, making clear to the word that it is being dragged into the talks, and that as far as Tehran is concerned, there’s no rush. (In fact, Iran has every reason to want these talks, and have them as soon as possible. The U.S. sanctions are hurting the Iranian economy and could potentially put the regime at risk.)
The U.S. is clear about wanting to move forward, but it is also busy lowering expectations, in part as a way to insulate the administration from possible failure. “These remain early days, and we don’t anticipate an immediate breakthrough as there will be difficult discussions ahead,” is what State Department spokesperson Ned Price had to say after the talks were announced Friday.
And as for the Europeans–they just want to go back to the good old days of 2015, when a major global conflict over Iran’s nuclear ambitions was averted, and when doors to Iran’s potentially huge financial market were kicked wide open.
But there’s another player not in Vienna, but still looming over the talks.
It is, of course, Israel.
Back in 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrated his ability to make then-president Barack Obama’s life miserable for signing the deal and was successful in mustering support from a vocal Republican opposition. He even convinced some centrist pro-Israel Democrats to oppose the deal. Netanyahu was later credited with convincing the Trump administration to drop out of the deal altogether.
3. Has Israel lost its leverage?
Netanyahu is still prime minister, at least until Israel figures a way out of its post-election coalition mess. But this isn’t the 2015 Benjamin Netanyahu, who took on Obama and tried to mobilize Congress against a sitting president’s top foreign policy goal.
This time, it’s a different Netanyahu entering the fray. Perhaps humbled by the limited success of his no holds barred approach of the previous decade, or–more likely–simply aware of the new political landscape in America: Biden is determined to return to the nuclear deal. Democrats, even those who had their doubts about the deal in the first round, are now less inclined to pick a fight with their president. And Republicans, while still a sure vote against any deal, have a different set of priorities now and don’t view Iran as their rallying call.
Furthermore, Netanyahu’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, who still views Bibi’s speech to Congress as a game-changer, is no longer posted in the nation’s capital.
His successor, Gilad Erdan, who also serves as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, has made it clear to his bosses in Jerusalem that he does not wish to make Iran the sole focus of his term, and has welcomed Netanyahu’s plan to appoint a special envoy for the issue.
Tactics aside, there’s also a new strategy on the Israeli side.
Netanyahu understands that at the end of the day, Biden is determined to revive the nuclear deal. Any thoughts or hopes of sticking to the Trump-era policy of “no deal until Iran crawls back” are off the table. The 2015 notion that if Israel only tries hard enough, it can make America drop its dream of a diplomatic compromise with Iran is no longer valid.
This leaves Israel with a more modest set of goals: extending the timeframe of the nuclear limitations imposed on Iran, tweaking the monitoring mechanisms, and making some effort to curb Iran’s ballistic missile program, which is not related directly to the nuclear issue.
4. The pro-Israel lobby is preparing
These priorities are reflected in a Senate letter, put together with the backing of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. The letter urges President Biden to use America’s diplomatic force in order to “reach an agreement that prevents Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons and meaningfully constrains its destabilizing activity throughout the Middle East and its ballistic missile program.” The language is relatively moderate, a necessary move in order to keep it bipartisan (it was signed by 28 Republicans, 14 Democrats, and an Independent).
If taken as a firm guideline for negotiations with Iran, these requirements amount to a non-starter. But if viewed by the Biden administration as the opening position of the pro-Israel camp, these demands sound like something that can be worked into the deal. Not fully, not immediately, but still in a way that will allow Israel and its supporters in the U.S., to feel this deal is somewhat better than the Obama-era one.
5. Best-case and worst-case scenarios for the talks
The worst-case scenario is clear: Iran balks at the idea of a gradual, mutual return to compliance, in which both Washington and Tehran move step by step toward full compliance. If Iran persists, and at the same time keeps moving forward with its nuclear plan, it might reach a point in which returning to the deal is all but impossible. When that happens, all potential consequences are bad: full international sanctions, military threats and a real threat of Iranian nuclear breakout.
In the best-case scenario, everything falls into place perfectly. Iran returns to full compliance, the U.S. lifts all sanctions, and all sides agree to discuss improvements to the existing deal.
The more likely option rests somewhere in between. Negotiations will be long and tough—in part due to the upcoming elections in Iran—and could end with both sides returning to the deal, with no clear path forward on improving the deal in the future. This would be perfectly fine with Iran, and would likely be accepted by the Europeans, and even by Biden (although he’d really like to see a second phase of the deal which would address concerns raised by Israel and the Gulf states). The loser in this scenario is Israel, which will be back in square one, without real hope for making the changes it wishes to see in the agreement.