VIENNA — The Munich Security Conference, the exclusive annual gathering of powerful decision-makers, can add one more event to its agenda this weekend: the Iran nuclear talks.
As officials signal an agreement may be nearing, European nuclear negotiators are expected to travel to Munich this weekend to keep talks going during the conference over reviving the Iran nuclear deal, which limited Tehran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for broad sanctions relief. Also attending will be Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and senior US officials like Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Vice President Kamala Harris.
Meanwhile, other delegations will stay behind in Vienna, where talks have been ongoing for months. There, diplomats will continue the formal discussions, not wanting to risk any interruption as negotiators reach the price of a potential deal.
Enrique Mora, the senior EU official responsible for coordinating and overseeing the talks, will keep working on what officials hope will be the final text of a deal. He’ll be joined in Vienna by Iran’s chief negotiator, top Russian and Chinese negotiators, as well as US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, according to a senior Western official with direct knowledge of the matter.
Looming over a pending deal are the ever-increasing fears around a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine. To this point, however, the tensions have not spilled over into the nuclear talks, the senior official said — Malley and his Russian counterpart have been meeting regularly in a business-like atmosphere. Whether that tone persists if Moscow launches an assault is another question, raising pressure on the negotiators to strike a deal quickly.
A second senior Western official said it would be “dangerous” to interrupt the negotiations now, given that officials are “closing in on a deal.” The official put the odds for reaching an agreement at 30 percent.
With Russian diplomats not attending the Munich conference this year, many observers will be keeping an eye on how the Iranian and US delegations will manage to avoid each other in the narrow and often crowded corridors of Bayerischer Hof, the five-star hotel hosting the event .
Iran has so far categorically refused face-to-face meetings with the US during the talks, forcing EU diplomats in Vienna to conduct shuttle diplomacy between the two delegations. But the US on Thursday downplayed the possibility of a get-together between Blinken and Amirabdollahian, his Iranian counterpart, while in Munich.
The Munich conference comes on the heels of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian telling lawmakers that a renewed deal with Iran was just days away.
“We have reached a tipping point now. It’s not a matter of weeks; it’s a matter of days,” he said. “Political decisions are needed from the Iranians. Either they trigger a serious crisis in the coming days, or they accept the agreement that respects the interests of all parties.”
Iran is not disputing that the talks have reached a final stage. The country’s chief negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani said this week that “we are closer than ever to an agreement; nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, though.”
US, European and Russian negotiators have all warned in recent months that Iran is only weeks away from having enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon. As a result, they argue time is running out for a successful conclusion of the talks.
Yet in Vienna, the atmosphere outside Palais Coburg, the site of the Vienna talks, is suspiciously calm, with no signs that talks could be heading toward a decision point.
Inside the luxury hotel, however, it’s more apparent that 10 months of intermittent negotiations are beginning to wear on delegates. One person familiar with the situation said negotiators can be spotted trying to relieve stress and fatigue with an infusion of cake, or by ducking out for a smoke on the small balcony overlooking the hotel’s inner courtyard.
Negotiators in Vienna say a draft deal is on the table, but they also caution that a number of difficult issues are still unresolved — among them Iran’s demand for legal guarantees that the US won’t abandon the deal in the future.
Former US President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018, leaving the agreement on life support. And while the Biden administration has vowed to uphold its obligations under the deal, it has said it can’t make guarantees for future administrations.
Iran has appealed to the US Congress, calling on it to provide a “political statement” in support of a revived Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as the deal is formally known.
The original JCPOA was not a treaty, and therefore not automatically subject to congressional approval. But, amid bipartisan frustration over how the deal was coming together, Congress passed a law giving it a say in future nuclear agreements with Iran. Some lawmakers now argue that even an agreement to return to the JCPOA should require a congressional vote — a stance the Biden administration rejects.
If Congress did get a say, it’s unlikely it would approve the deal, even symbolically, given strong Republican opposition to a deal — not to mention some opponents within Biden’s Democratic Party.
Still, some details of a draft roadmap for a mutual return to the original 2015 deal are beginning to emerge.
The second senior Western official said the US could take the first step, potentially by releasing the first part of an estimated $100 billion in Iranian funds frozen in foreign bank accounts — as first reported by Reuters — or through other partial sanctions relief. Iran would then begin preparations to ship uranium out of Iran to Russia, reduce enrichment levels and start dismantling some nuclear centrifuges.
Recent talks between Iran and South Korea to discuss the unfreezing of approximately $7 billion in Iranian funds are a sign that preparations are being made for this step.
But the sequencing could also be designed so that the two countries can say they are moving in parallel — a process that unfolded in 2015, when the original deal was cinched.
The original JCPOA included the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the US, Britain, France, Russia and China — plus Germany. The European Union acted as mediator and coordinator of the talks.
Iran has always maintained that its nuclear program is peaceful and that it has no intention to produce an atomic bomb.
Nahal Toosi contributed reporting from Washington, DC