The second round of indirect talks between Iran and the United States on the possible revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has just drawn to a close, and the parties have returned home to consult with their respective governments.
Meanwhile, a tweet from Abbas Araghchi, the head of the Iranian delegation during this round of talks, criticizing Iranian state-owned broadcaster Press TV has made headlines in Iran. What provoked the ire of Iran’s latest nuclear negotiator – and is it sincere, or once again about the elections?
True to form, no official report has been released by the Iranian government on the details of the Vienna talks. The parties have made only the most general of statements, such as: “Negotiations are on the right track."
Little news about the content of the discussions was made public, which naturally left journalists of all stripes itching to know more – generally via the tried-and-tested means of “informed sources”. One update from the Iranian state broadcaster PressTV, which was based on a missive from somebody supposedly in the know, has provoked a startling reaction from the head of the Iranian negotiating team.
"I do not know who the 'informed source' of Press TV in Vienna is, but it is certainly not 'informed,'" Abbas Araghchi, the Islamic Republic's deputy foreign minister and Iran's chief negotiator in this round of talks, tweeted on Tuesday evening.
The tweet provoked an immediate, formal response from Press TV, the Islamic Republic’s English-language media outlet, which wrote that the Araghchi "instead of questioning the credibility of Press TV sources, should show what information was incorrect".
It is not clear precisely which PressTV report Araghchi was referring to. One PressTV report widely thought to have rankled the nuclear negotiator had quoted an “informed source” as saying: "During the Vienna talks, Iran did not accept the step-by-step lifting of sanctions and said the sanctions should be lifted all at once."
But that is exactly what Araqchi and other Rouhani government officials have said. The team has long insisted that firstly, the general framework of the negotiations will be approved by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic and they will not negotiate directly with the United States, and secondly, that they will return to fulfilling their nuclear obligations only if the United States returns to the JCPOA and "lifts the totality of sanctions".
As a result, attention has turned to another report by PressTV. On Tuesday, the broadcaster quoted an "informed source" as saying that the United States had no intention of lifting the sanctions and that the US agenda in the talks was to "suspend" the sanctions, and even to extend them to 120-day and 180-day intervals.
According to one analyst, in the past month and a half, Press TV has published eight separate news items about the JCPOA that quoted either an "informed source" or a "senior security official".
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the term “informed source” has a specific meaning. It generally connotes someone who is directly involved in political-security rivalries, and usually a member of one faction or another.
As such, a number of observers are now questioning who the “informed source” or sources speaking to PressTV might be. Some speculate that it might be Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, who has had escalating differences of opinion with President Hassan Rouhani in recent months.
In mid-December last year tensions between the two were heightened during discussions over the parliament’s nuclear resolution. The Rouhani administration argued that parliament should be coordinating with the Supreme National Security Council to pass any law on nuclear issues, with discussions overseen by Hassan Rouhani himself. But some analysts later claimed that in the end, Rouhani had been “bypassed” and the parliament colluded with the Security Council and Shamkhani without his involvement.
Tensions between Shamkhani and Rouhani's officials continued for several weeks afterward. Later on Hossein Dehghan, the military adviser to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, said in an interview with the journal Triangle: "Mr. Rouhani has always sought to oust Mr. Shamkhani, but I was not willing to replace Mr. Shamkhani."
Shamkhani's next interview with ISNA, in which he strongly criticized the Rouhani government's performance during the November 2019 protests, only added to this tension. These internal tussles within the Islamic Republic do not involve just two individuals, but the factions they represent – and moreover, they are related to the upcoming June presidential election.
The JCPOA and Iran’s Presidential Election
Although the Biden administration has spoken out about its desire to revive the JCPOA, both US and European officials, as well as a countless number of observers and pundits, have stressed that this will not be a quick or easy process.
There have so far been two rounds of talks between Iran and the P4+1 countries. But there is disagreement on the extent of the progress to date. Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday evening that the Vienna talks had “about 70 percent” progress, while a diplomat told Politico that the talks were "almost midway".
The US State Department’s spokesman Ned Price, however, was more circumspect. “Yes, there has been some progress,” he said on Tuesday, “but there remains a long road ahead. And I think it’s fair to say that we have more road ahead of us than we do in the rearview mirror.”
A large number of conservatives in Iran share a single goal: to thwart the foundering Rouhani administration in reviving the JCPOA through to the last day before the election. For his part, Rouhani wants to see the US return to the JCPOA before he leaves office, to mitigate the legacy he will leave behind him after a disastrous second term.
The "economic reopening" that could result from the revival of the JCPOA could become a tool for the victory of any faction in this year's extremely weak elections. But at the same time, within the Islamic Republic, there are many who benefit from the continuation of sanctions because of the fast rent they receive from ongoing circumvention operations.