Iran Talks Enter Fifth—and Possibly Final—Round
Iran’s president said only “minor issues” remain as world powers meet in Vienna.
Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Talks resume on U.S. return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the EU imposes sanctions after Belarus “hijacking,” and Aung San Suu Kyi appears for the first time since Myanmar coup.
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Iran Nuclear Talks Resume in Vienna
Negotiators from the United States, Iran, and the other signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal return to Vienna today for the fifth and—if reports are to be believed—final round of talks over a U.S. return to the agreement.
The talks gained some momentum after the extension of a monitoring deal between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran. The one-month extension allows the IAEA to access footage taken from cameras at Iran’s nuclear sites and was extended “so that negotiations have the necessary chance to progress and bear results,” according to a statement from Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.
Iran’s election. The talks also come against the backdrop of the race to succeed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in elections on June 18. Seven candidates were approved by Iran’s Guardian Council on Monday, with some notable absentees. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not make the cut; nor did former Iranian Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, who had been considered a frontrunner. With the Guardian Council’s choice, the field is effectively open for Iranian Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, who is perceived to be the favorite of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Raisi came a close second to Rouhani in 2017 and already holds considerable power as head of Iran’s judiciary.
A breakthrough? Russia’s top negotiator, Mikhail Ulyanov, has sounded the most upbeat tone for the duration of the negotiations. At the conclusion of the fourth round of talks, he reported a deal was “within reach.” He welcomed Monday’s decision between Iran and the IAEA for helping continue a “businesslike atmosphere” at the talks.
In Iran, different factions have put forward their version of events. Last week, Rouhani said the United States agreed to lift sanctions on key economic sectors—banking, shipping, and oil—and any roadblocks remaining were “minor issues.” An unnamed senior Iranian official questioned this claim on state television, saying Washington had no intention of “completely” lifting sanctions on those sectors, and any sanctions reprieve would be temporary.
Speaking to ABC News on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed some skepticism about Iran’s sincerity in returning to compliance with the 2015 deal. Blinken said Iran knew what steps it had to take to stay within those rules but “what we haven’t yet seen is whether Iran is ready and willing to make a decision to do what it has to do. That’s the test, and we don’t yet have an answer.”
Spoilers. Even if a deal is agreed on, those outside the agreement may still take matters into their own hands. On the eve of Blinken’s visit to the region, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted at unilateral action. “In any event—with or without a deal—we will do everything to deny Iran nuclear weapons because this concerns our very existence,” Netanyahu said at a ceremony welcoming David Barnea as the new head of the Mossad.
What We’re Following Today
EU sanctions Belarus. The European Union announced fresh sanctions against Belarus, targeting those involved in the forced grounding in Minsk of a Vilnius-bound Ryanair flight to arrest dissident journalist Roman Protasevich. The sanctions target businesses involved with Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s government as well as the country’s aviation sector. EU leaders have also asked European airlines to avoid Belarus’s airspace and have banned Belarusian airlines from crossing into EU territory. Protasevich appeared in a video on Monday where he said he was in good health and cooperating with police.
Mali’s transitional leadership detained. Mali’s transitional president and prime minister were arrested by members of Mali’s military on Monday, hours after a cabinet reshuffle that left out two supporters of the junta who had seized power in September 2020. The Economic Community of West African States’s bloc has called for the immediate release of Malian President Bah N’Daw and Malian Prime Minister Moctar Ouane and urged its transitional government “to resume its course and conclude within the established timeframe.”
China rejects COVID-19 origins story. Chinese authorities have rejected a Wall Street Journal report that cited U.S. intelligence claims saying a number of workers at Wuhan’s virus laboratory were hospitalized weeks before the first COVID-19 case was reported in the city. The report said lab workers became ill “with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illness.” Chinese Foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian dismissed the report as “completely untrue” and suggested the United States was attempting to deflect attention from its own failings. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the intelligence report was provided by a third country and needed more information before it could be verified.
The report comes as the World Health Organization (WHO) begins discussions on how to continue investigating the origins of the virus. A WHO investigative team that visited Wuhan in February deemed the lab leak theory “extremely unlikely” and maintained the first human transmission likely came from bats.
Aung San Suu Kyi appears in court. Images of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader before the Feb. 1 military coup, appeared on Monday for the first time since the military takeover. State television showed her in court seated beside ousted President Win Myint and former Naypyidaw Mayor Myo Aung. Aung San Suu Kyi appeared in good health and has largely been kept in the dark regarding developments in the country, her legal team said.
Coup leader Min Aung Hlaing gave his first interview to foreign media on Monday, also confirming that Aung San Suu Kyi was in good health. Speaking to Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television, the junta leader said 300 people had been killed in the months since Feb. 1. Opposition groups say the true death toll is more than 800 deaths.
Keep an Eye On
Climate displacement. The number of people internally displaced by climate disasters in 2020 was more than three times higher than those displaced by conflict and violence, new figures from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre show. An estimated 30.7 million people migrated domestically due to extreme weather events in 2020 out of a total of 55 million internally displaced people, the report found. China, the Philippines, India, and Bangladesh were the worst affected by extreme weather. The United States was the next most affected country as 1.7 million people were forced to move due to climate disasters in 2020.
Tokyo’s Olympic hopes. The U.S. State Department has advised its citizens not to travel to Japan as the country faces a fresh COVID-19 outbreak just two months before Tokyo is set to host the Olympics. Foreign spectators were already banned from attending, but the move comes as domestic support for hosting the Olympics is already near rock bottom: A poll released last week found 83 percent of those surveyed said they did not want Tokyo to host the games.
U.S.-Ethiopia ties. Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said the country may be “forced to reassess its relations with the United States” after Washington announced restrictions on economic aid and security assistance over reports of human rights abuses during the conflict in Tigray. Ethiopia accused the United States of attempting to “meddle in its internal affairs,” something that “is not only inappropriate but also completely unacceptable.” Speaking on Sunday. Blinken said the restrictions were applied to force a resolution between the warring parties.
Odds and Ends
India’s aviation authority has launched an investigation after footage emerged of a couple holding a mid-air wedding aboard a chartered flight as a way to skirt state coronavirus restrictions. Tamil Nadu, where the flight originated, currently restricts weddings to no more than 50 people while more than 160 people appeared to take part in the airborne ritual. SpiceJet, the company that provided the flight, has suspended its cabin crew over the incident and said it had been misled by the travel agent who booked its services.
Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn