Nuclear talks get underway in Vienna

What happened: The nuclear talks with Iran and the UK, France, China, Russia, and Germany began on Monday afternoon and continued yesterday, as Israeli leaders warned that lifting sanctions could lead to Israeli military strikes on Iran.

  • Following Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s meetings in London earlier this week, yesterday he was in Paris meeting French President Emmanuel Macron. Lapid related to the Vienna talks saying: “Sanctions must not be lifted from Iran. Sanctions must be tightened. A real military threat must be put before Iran, because that is the only way to stop its race to become a nuclear power.”
  • Also relating to the renewal of the talks, Defence Minister Benny Gantz said: “In the past days, Israeli teams have shared intelligence with our friends around the world that points to Iran’s current process of dashing towards a nuclear weapon, blatantly violating the agreement that is in place with Europe. To our partners I stress – the time that passes must have a price expressed in sanctions or military alternatives, so that Iran will stop its nuclear race and its regional aggression. We do not oppose negotiations but we must not cooperate with their stalling. We recognise the international community’s work to reach a diplomatic solution with the Iranians, yet we must continue, as a strong and independent country to maintain the capability to defend ourselves.”
  • In Vienna, the Iranian delegation is heavily focused on sanctions relief and includes three deputy foreign ministers (foreign ministry Bagheri, legal ministry Najafi and economy ministry Safari), as well as representatives from the oil and economy ministries, Central Bank of Iran and the Supreme Council for Foreign Relations.
  • The first day of talks reportedly involved the Iranian delegation giving an initial presentation on sanctions and did not include any detailed text or substantive negotiation. The US is not part of the official negotiations and is holding indirect talks with the UK, France, China, Russia, and Germany in a separate room.
  • European officials have stressed whilst they are ready to hold serious negotiations, “If they [Iran] don’t show us that they are serious this week, then we have a problem”.
  • The European diplomats said they didn’t want to set an “artificial timeline” for talks but “we do think that we don’t have the luxury of spending one whole round of negotiations with initial niceties … we would like to actually get down to business, starting today”.

Context: The negotiations in Vienna this week are the seventh round of talks. The last round broke off five months ago. Since then, Iran has elected a new hard-line president.

  • The UK, French, Chinese, Russian, and German negotiators were hoping to resume talks where they left off in June. However, Ian’s senior negotiator Ali Bagheri gave the impression yesterday that they could start from the beginning. He was quoted in Iranian media saying: “Drafts are subject to negotiation. Therefore, nothing is agreed on unless everything has been agreed on. On that basis, all discussions that took place in the six rounds are summarised and are subject to negotiations.”
  • At this point, despite opposing the original deal, some Israeli officials are hoping they do reach an agreement that at least stops Iran’s nuclear enrichment. That will also allow Israel more time to complete preparations for a potential attack.
  • However, Israel is very concerned that a limited deal, referred to as “less for less,” whereby Iran would only freeze the progress made in uranium enrichment (but not give it up) in return for the lifting of sanctions, would allow Iran to bank their progress and receive a huge financial reward.
  • In parallel, Israel media has revealed that the government has shared new intelligence with partners in the international community that indicate Iran has taken a series of technical and logistical steps to prepare to enrich weapons grade uranium to 90 per cent – 25kg of 90 per cent enriched uranium is enough for single nuclear bomb.
  • Israel’s red line appears to be Iran having enough enriched uranium to be considered a nuclear threshold state. The US see nuclear fissile material as just one (albeit crucial) component of being a nuclear threshold state. They believe Iran will be on the threshold of nuclear status only when they succeed in weaponisation. Israeli military intelligence says such a process could take an additional year or more.

Looking ahead: With no strict deadline set on the Vienna talks, Israeli officials are concerned that they could drag on for weeks and even months, all the while Iran continues to enrich uranium.

  • Next week Defence Minister Benny Gantz will visit Washington to continue discussions on the Iranian issue.
  • In parallel, there is concern in the region that Iran or Iranian proxies could escalate violence in Syria, Iraq or Yemen or target US forces to add pressure to the talks in Vienna.

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