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Iran Talks Enter Crucial Month

The Biden administration has warned of thinning patience for weeks. Is January the breaking point?

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, leaves the Palais Coburg in Vienna on Dec. 27, 2021.
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, leaves the Palais Coburg in Vienna on Dec. 27, 2021.
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, leaves the Palais Coburg in Vienna on Dec. 27, 2021. Alex Halada/AFP

Happy New Year, and welcome back. Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The eighth round of talks on the Iran nuclear deal resume in Vienna, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok resigns, and the world this week.

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Iran Talks Resume in Vienna

Happy New Year, and welcome back. Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The eighth round of talks on the Iran nuclear deal resume in Vienna, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok resigns, and the world this week.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Iran Talks Resume in Vienna

Global powers resume talks with Iran on Monday in Vienna following a brief New Year pause as the United States considers whether to continue its support for negotiations.

Both in public and in private, U.S. officials have declared frustration with Iran’s negotiation tactics under the administration of new President Ebrahim Raisi, repeatedly warning that time is running out to obtain a deal and hinting at more direct actions to halt Iran’s nuclear advances.

Other participants in Vienna have bristled at U.S. anxieties over the talks, which U.S. negotiators are participating in indirectly. Speaking to my FP colleague Colum Lynch last week, Russian chief negotiator Mikhail Ulyanov called the sense of urgency a “little bit exaggerated.”

Even Iran’s increased enrichment activity was less of a concern for the Russian representative. “Even if they produce a significant amount of nuclear material, so what? It cannot be used without a warhead, and the Iranians do not have warheads,” Ulyanov said.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden’s critics have called for a change in strategy, with Anthony Ruggiero arguing in Foreign Policy for a firmer hand with Iran, including a censure from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors.

While concern from U.S. hard-liners over a nuclear deal isn’t new, there is some basis for the most recent reticence. Henry Rome, the deputy head of research at the Eurasia Group, said Iran’s negotiating stance will need some shifting if more progress is to be made.

“I think hawks in the U.S. and Israel are certainly looking for more decisive action from the Biden administration, but the real driver here is what the Iranians are doing and what they’re not doing,” Rome told Foreign Policy.

“If the Iranians slowed down their nuclear advances and sped up serious diplomatic efforts, we could have a different conversation here, but the energy is really only in one area. And so I think from the administration’s point of view, if that does not change, then there’s just no path forward,” Rome added.

If Iran’s approach frustrates Washington, an unwillingness to trust U.S. commitments is rational considering the country’s swift exit from the 2015 agreement under then-President Donald Trump. With Biden’s chances of reelection up in the air, Iran’s new government may see little value in expending political capital only to see the investment evaporate once again.

As the Biden administration considers its options, the stilted format of the talks may be in need of a refresh, said Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at the International Crisis Group. “I think if the Iranians were willing to be more flexible and accept either confidential negotiations with the U.S. or even [another] indirect channel … the odds of success will increase significantly,” he told Foreign Policy.

“We are in many ways paying the price of Trump’s maximum pressure experiment, and the onus of paying penance is on us. And so I do believe the U.S. would have to go the extra mile in order to make sure that the Iranian people really reap the benefits of sanctions relief,” Vaez added.

As talks resume, public statements from the most cautious parties—the U.S. and Iranian sides—could point to whether progress is being made, Eurasia Group’s Rome said. If those declarations prove cagey, a speech from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei later this month could give a glimpse of what to expect.

In the meantime, expectations for a breakthrough remain low. “What we’re looking at here is that the gulf between the most desirable scenario and most likely scenario is huge and it’s getting wider,” Rome said.


The World This Week

Monday, Jan. 3: The second anniversary of the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani by a U.S. airstrike.

Tuesday, Jan. 4: OPEC+ oil ministers hold their first meeting of the year.

Wednesday, Jan. 5: The International Consumer Electronics Show begins in Las Vegas.

Thursday, Jan. 6: U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks one year after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. Separately, former President Donald Trump is also scheduled to give a speech.

Friday, Jan. 7: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen pays a two-day visit to Myanmar. Hun Sen is set to be the first head of government to meet with coup leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.


What We’re Following Today

Sudan’s Hamdok resigns. Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok announced his resignation on Sunday, six weeks after he had been reinstated following a military coup in October, saying: “I tried as far as I am able to spare our country the danger of slipping into disaster.” His departure came the same day three protesters were killed in Khartoum in pro-democracy demonstrations.

South Africa’s parliament fire. South African authorities continue to assess the damage to the country’s National Assembly building in Cape Town after a large-scale fire tore through the complex on Sunday. Parliament was not in session, and no injuries or deaths were reported in the blaze. South African police have detained a suspect on suspicion of arson. Officials said the man would appear in court on Tuesday after he was arrested inside the building during the fire.


Keep an Eye On

Ousted from AGOA. The United States has stopped Ethiopia, Guinea, and Mali from receiving the benefits of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a program that gives countries duty-free access to the U.S. market provided they meet certain criteria. In a Saturday statement, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said recent human rights violations by the Ethiopian government in Tigray as well as coups in Guinea and Mali prompted the decision.

South Korea’s defector. A South Korean defected to North Korea on Saturday, crossing the military demarcation line during the night, South Korean military officials confirmed. Roughly 30,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since an armistice brought the Korean War to a standstill, but a case of a South Korean making the opposite journey is extremely rare. The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said they had informed their North Korean counterparts of the defection via a hotline but otherwise could not confirm the safety of the as yet unnamed South Korean.

Finland in NATO? Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin both left open the possibility of the country joining NATO in the near future in separate New Year’s addresses. While concluding that the country’s national security position was “stable,” Niinisto added that Finland’s “room to maneuver and freedom of choice also include the possibility of military alignment and of applying for NATO membership, should we ourselves so decide.” Barring a dramatic shift in public opinion, Finland is likely to remain outside the alliance, with only 26 percent of Finns supporting NATO membership in an October poll.


Odds and Ends

Ukraine’s culture minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, has complained to Netflix over the portrayal of a Ukrainian character in the latest season of the popular show Emily in Paris. Tkachenko took issue with the “insulting” character Petra, who shoplifts, has poor fashion sense, and worries about her immigration status.

Critics, particularly in France, upbraided the show’s broad-brush approach to stereotypes in its first season. “No cliché is spared, not even the most desperate,” Charles Martin of Premiere wrote in 2020.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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