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Iran nuclear deal: Could Vienna talks mark the start of a new Cold War?

Negotiations are not only about Tehran's nuclear programme. They are also about the new world order emerging as US power declines
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani leaving the Coburg Palais, venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action meeting aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, in Vienna on 3 December 2021 (AFP)

It is fitting that the Austrian capital, Vienna, is hosting the latest attempt to salvage the Iran nuclear deal, which then-US president Donald Trump wrecked three years ago. Vienna was the setting for film director Carol Reed’s moody Cold War masterpiece The Third Man, and this week it is hosting the opening exchanges of the next Cold War.

This is not the old Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, but the new one between the US and the emergent Chinese superpower. For these talks are only in part about Iran: they are also about the new world order that is emerging, with the US in headlong retreat across Asia and the Middle East following humiliating defeats in Iraq and, most recently, Afghanistan.

Put yourself in the shoes of the Rouhani government, which signed the nuclear deal. It never got anything serious in return for its political courage

It is true that, officially, the Vienna talks - taking place in the Coburg Palace, a neoclassical monstrosity dating back to before the Austro-Hungarian empire - only concern Iran. But in reality, much more is at stake. The new global security architecture is something that viscerally affects all the nations involved in these talks: France, Russia, Britain, China and Germany, the so-called P4+1, who alongside the US negotiated the 2015 deal.

The US played a central role in securing that deal, by which Iran agreed to scale back its nuclear ambitions in return for an end to sanctions - but today, it is not present in the negotiating chamber. Iran refused to allow this after the US unilaterally reneged on the deal in 2018.

There is, however, a US delegation in Vienna, holed up in the neighbouring Marriott hotel. European messengers brave Vienna’s draughty and empty streets to deliver messages to the stranded US diplomats.

Fundamental injustice

There is no unanimity among negotiators; they are, in fact, divided among themselves, as highlighted on the opening day of negotiations this week, when the Chinese made scathing comments about the “nuclear hypocrisy” of the West. These remarks strongly suggest that the Chinese are sympathetic to the fundamental argument of Iranian negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani that his country has been dealt a fundamental injustice by the US - an injustice in which the Europeans have been complicit.

In an interview with Middle East Eye on Wednesday, Bagheri Kani pointed out that the 2015 deal, in which Iran agreed to restrict uranium enrichment in return for the lifting of sanctions, had one fatal flaw: while Iran complied with its side of the bargain, the sanctions were never lifted.

Negotiations aim to revive the Iran nuclear deal (EU Delegation in Vienna/AFP)
Negotiations aim to revive the Iran nuclear deal (EU delegation in Vienna/AFP)

Former US president Barack Obama, the architect of the deal, certainly talked peace. But behind the scenes, the US Treasury threatened any entity that tried to do business with Iran. As such, it made little difference whether Iran was in or out of the nuclear deal. Trump later ramped up sanctions, and the Europeans could do nothing about it.

Put yourself in the shoes of the Rouhani government, which signed the nuclear deal. It never got anything serious in return for its political courage in trying to make peace with the US and its allies. This meant that, inside Iran, it was unable to defend itself against domestic critics - a group that included Bagheri Kani - who argued that the government had signed an unbalanced deal.

Under the deal, Iran stuck to its word and allowed full monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency of Iranian nuclear activities. But there was no reciprocal verification when it came to US guarantees that Iran could re-engage with the international community. 

Talks likely to fail

When the Rouhani government knew it was on course to lose this year’s election, desperation set in. During six sessions of negotiations, it was on course to agree to a deal that would leave Iran as isolated financially as it was before. One member of the Iranian delegation compared the deal being sought by the outgoing Iranian government to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit: “Johnson struck a deal he knew could never be kept.” 

That’s why Bagheri Kani has brought a 40-strong negotiating team, including a former governor of Iran’s central bank and two deputy foreign ministers. He needs that team to insist on verification that the US will allow Iran to trade in international markets once more.

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That is a promise that the US diplomats, from their vantage point in the Marriott, are highly unlikely to give. And even if they did, it is hard to see how President Joe Biden could deliver on this. So these talks are likely to fail.

That takes us back to the rift between China (and Russia) on the one side, and the Europeans on the other. The US humiliation in Kabul in August sent the message through a region - which is increasingly becoming known as West Asia rather than the Middle East - that the US is on the way out. Expect an ever-more powerful China to resist US attempts to weaponise the US dollar to impose sanctions on countries it dislikes, such as Iran.

On Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrogantly warned Iran that “the hour is getting very late” to return to the nuclear deal. That is not how Iran sees the issue. The negotiating team believes that time is running out for the US, its position much weaker than it thinks - and that it is time for Blinken and Biden to awaken to the unpleasant realities of the next Cold War.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book, The Assault on Truth, was published in February 2021. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.