Accusing the U.S. of violating "the spirit" of last month's interim deal, Iran stopped negotiations with world powers in Vienna over how to curb its nuclear program—just one day after Washington announced new sanctions against companies and individuals found supporting Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
Diplomats are downplaying Tehran's decision to end the talks. According to Reuters, diplomats stressed the "inconclusive outcome" of the Vienna discussions about how to implement the deal, meant to curtail the most dangerous aspects of Iran's nuclear program in exchange for about $7 billion in sanctions relief, and said this did not mean the deal was in "serious trouble." Discussions, they say, are expected to resume soon.
However, the news, which comes as the Obama administration has launched a charm offensive to persuade skeptical members of Congress to give diplomacy a chance and avoid levying new sanctions on Iran, does raise the possibility of two separate outcomes:
1) The Nov. 23 deal is fragile, and Iran is not a guaranteed player. The Obama administration worries new sanctions from Congress would unravel the sensitive nuclear negotiations, but to prevent members from taking action, it must prove it can and will keep the economic pressure on Tehran. Thursday's sanctions announcement, just hours before senior State and Treasury Department officials testified on Capitol Hill—was a strong step in that direction.
That Tehran is hesitant to concretely commit to more talks after the sanctions is a sign Iranian officials may not be bluffing when they warn new sanctions would derail a deal. The nuclear deal was considered a major diplomatic breakthrough and a solid chance to end the decadelong nuclear dispute. So, after Friday's spat, those members of Congress inclined to give talks a chance may have more ammunition to convince their colleagues not to call Iran's bluff.
2) However, that the Iranian delegation returned to Tehran after the U.S. simply demonstrated it would enforce its existing sanctions is not necessarily an encouraging sign that the country—which is obviously familiar with the international vise around its economy—is serious.
There's no chance Washington will lift all its sanctions at once, just as there's virtually no chance Iran will dismantle all of its nuclear program immediately. Everyone knows some form of pressure must remain for negotiations to continue. If Iran breaks off—or extensively pauses—nuclear talks now because it is angry about sanctions that are already in force, impatient congressional hawks are virtually certain to move forward with new measures to cripple Iran's economy and test its resolve. And in that case, very likely, the deal would be kaput.