The tone has been set at the start of crucial talks in Vienna, with Iran talking of a “deal or no deal” outcome while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the two sides must put “America first”.
For all the words of diplomatic caution, the ongoing negotiations are extremely tense, the outcome of the talks crucial and possibly historic, and the stakes incredibly high.
The main purpose of the meeting is to discuss a deal on the future of Iran’s nuclear programme that would end an eight-year dispute, and one that could play a major role in the diplomatic detente that has been established since President Donald Trump took office.
And US officials said on Tuesday that Trump has given them a series of requirements to be met before his administration will sign on to a new agreement. It is not clear whether the administration is seeking changes in the text itself, or additional conditions on the speed of sanctions relief. The French, however, are pushing to include a promise to waive Iran’s nuclear sanctions again and again – until they have little or no chance of being lifted.
Although Iran is using the term “decisive” to describe the state of play, diplomats and analysts see it as a key political phrase of Iranian diplomacy, but an unrealistic goal. In fact, many experts believe it is more likely that the parties will work out a continuing process of negotiations until they have a compromise that both sides can accept.
Countries that are permanent members of the UN security council, such as Britain, France and Russia, could use their clout to vote with a united position. Other countries will be closely watching each country’s public posture and consider that foreign minister style to be just one side of the divide.
The Iranian delegate, Hassan Khomeini, has hinted to the media that his country might walk away from the negotiations if not reached by the time the deadline for a deal expires in June.
“We say in the beginning that if a deal is not reached before the end of June then, in fact, no deal would be reached,” Khomeini told Iran’s embassy in Austria after arriving for talks on Monday.
He said Iran had been preparing for all outcomes of the talks, but specifically noted that if the EU had “a technical answer, a logical answer, to all ambiguities in the deal, then all questions about whether or not we can sign a new agreement would have been answered.”
The main sticking point is the speed at which Iran’s sanctions are phased out. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, wants sanctions to be lifted instantly, but US officials want a long phase-out period.
Iran has made clear it is not interested in any “non-political” deal that would be brokered by the US with a one-sided sense of euphoria. Zarif has said that Iran would get more concessions in a deal with the EU, Russia and China than with the US.
Trump wants to remove the Iranian nuclear programme from the world stage and in an age of nuclear agreements, restoring sanctions that had been lifted by Obama, even with Congress’ assent would be the ultimate pain of parting ways.
“We think a deal between these two parties is at the top of everybody’s mind right now,” the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said before he left France for Vienna. “It has national implications at home.”
Iran’s chief negotiator Abbas Araqchi, who was not at the Vienna talks, said on Tuesday: “I am optimistic but not certain.” He was speaking to Reuters at a hotel in Vienna, after meeting the Iranian team during a low-key visit.
The talks were expected to focus on an ongoing financial investigation by the US Treasury into Iran’s $100bn (£74bn) in assets held abroad.
On Monday, before the official start of the negotiations, the US House of Representatives approved a measure to reimpose sanctions. The US Senate is expected to give its blessing before the White House’s deadline.
Though the nuclear programme has been the focus of the talks for most of the talks, there is still so much that could be agreed on.
There have been suggestions from Tehran and Washington that they might be able to reach agreement on other issues such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
On Monday, Zarif said that Iran was ready to resume talks about “most critical issues” with Washington.