U.S. and Iran Agree to Resume Talks on Nuclear Deal
The United States and Iran will take part in talks next week in Vienna aimed at reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, the most extensive effort to shore up the accord since President Biden took office in January, diplomats said Friday.
Senior officials from all participants in the accord—Iran, France, Germany, the U.K., Russia, China and the European Union, as well as top U.S. officials—will gather in the Austrian capital starting Tuesday.
For now, Iran has ruled out direct talks on nuclear matters with the U.S. However both countries will attend the gathering, which is aimed at breaking a stalemate over Iranian compliance with the agreement and U.S. sanctions against Tehran.
A face-to-face meeting between officials from the two countries over the nuclear agreement would be the first since late 2017, months before the Trump administration withdrew from the deal in May 2018.
President Biden has said he wants the U.S. to return to the deal, which placed strict but temporary limits on Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for a suspension of international sanctions on Tehran.
The Vienna meeting will aim at drawing up two separate agreements, one with the U.S. and with Iran, on steps they will take to return to the agreement and timetables for returning. After senior officials from the various countries launch the discussions, they will leave nuclear and sanctions experts to hammer out the details of the work.
The Biden administration is sending a team of experts to Vienna, though the State Department hasn’t said if Rob Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, will attend.
“This is a first step,” Mr. Malley said Friday on Twitter. “Difficult discussions ahead but on the right path.”
Over the past few weeks, Washington and Tehran have exchanged proposals through European intermediaries on the initial steps each might take, European and U.S. officials said.
But those diplomatic efforts have been frustrated by lingering distrust between the two sides, the difficulty of negotiating technical issues through third parties and divisions within the Iranian ranks, the officials said.
On Friday morning, the remaining participants in the deal spoke via videoconference. In a statement, the EU chair of the body which oversees the nuclear accord confirmed negotiations will take place in Vienna next week.
The goal is to make headway before Tehran holds presidential elections in June, a milestone that could lead to a new Iranian negotiating team and more delays—and before Iran takes further steps to expand its nuclear efforts and limit international monitoring.
A senior EU official said it would likely take weeks to agree on a timetable for the U.S. and Iran to return to the deal, but that he hoped the discussions could be wrapped up by late May.
It will take additional time to implement any agreement, meaning a possible full return to compliance with the agreement may not happen before a new Iranian president takes office.
“There are really significant technical and really significant political constraints on both sides,” said Henry Rome, senior Iran analyst at Eurasia Group in Washington. “I think ultimately there is enough interest on both sides for making this happen, but we shouldn’t underestimate the challenge of getting to yes.”
The current stalemate stems from disputes that arose in 2018 when then-President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal, describing it as seriously flawed. He called for a new pact halting all nuclear enrichment in Iran, stopping Iran’s development of nuclear-capable missiles and ending Tehran’s support for militant groups.
Iran began to exceed the limits of the nuclear deal in July 2019 and in January said that it had started to produce 20% enriched uranium. In February, a U.N. atomic agency report said Iran began to produce a small amount of uranium metal, which is barred under the accord. Former officials say those steps appeared calculated to increase pressure on Washington to remove sanctions without collapsing the entire 2015 deal.
Biden administration officials have said they hope to use a restored deal as a basis for a follow-on arrangement that would impose more enduring limits on Iran’s nuclear activities and deal with Tehran’s ballistic missile program.
Iran began to exceed the limits of the nuclear deal in July 2019 and in January said that it had started to produce 20% enriched uranium, steps that former officials say appeared calculated to increase pressure on Washington to remove sanctions without collapsing the entire 2015 deal.
On Friday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Iran will only move back into compliance with the deal once the U.S. lifts its sanctions. He also dismissed the prospect of direct U.S. talks.
“No Iran-US meeting. Unnecessary,” he said on Twitter.
In the two months that Mr. Biden has held office, the talks have been through a series of dizzying twists and turns.
European nations that were party to the agreement on Feb. 18 proposed talks at which U.S. and Iranian officials would meet face to face.
But the Iranians refused to meet with the Americans, saying that initial steps to revive the agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, should be agreed upon first.
“They messaged us that maybe the best thing would be for each side to make an initial gesture that would pave the way to those talks,” a senior U.S. official said, referring to communications passed through intermediaries. “They wanted some sanctions relief and in return they would reverse some nuclear steps they had taken in contravention of the JCPOA. It was their idea, and we went along.”
Contacts continued between Washington and Tehran, which ran through the other participants in the deal. But when the U.S. proposed some initial steps to unfreeze funds or ease sanctions in return for Iran moves to constrain its nuclear activities, Tehran rejected them as insufficient.
According to Western officials involved in the talks, the first push for a breakthrough came within two weeks, when the three European powers suggested to Tehran, after discussions with Washington, an arrangement that would deliver Iran $1 billion in frozen oil revenue from South Korea that would be used to buy humanitarian items.
This would be in exchange for an initial step by Tehran to freeze the most dangerous of its nuclear proliferation steps, the production of 20% enriched uranium.
Tehran rejected the proposal and demanded that the U.S. unfreeze all of Iran’s export revenue frozen abroad—estimated to be well over $30 billion—in exchange for a month-long pause of its production of 20% enriched uranium. That idea was a nonstarter in Washington.
In recent days, another U.S.-approved offer was floated to Iran. The proposal, earlier reported by Politico, was for Iran to halt its production of 20% enriched uranium and stop work on advanced centrifuges, the machines used to enrich uranium.
Iran’s work on advanced centrifuges is of special concern because it could allow Iran to move far more swiftly to amass enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.
In exchange, Washington would allow some frozen funds to return to Iran and issue waivers that would make it possible for Iran to legally export some of its oil. The offer was quickly rejected by Tehran.
On the Iranian side, returning to full compliance would involve setting out clear goal posts for diluting, disposing of or shipping abroad several tons of enriched uranium, including 20% material; shutting down work on uranium metal taking place in a new site and shuttering new underground storage facilities for more advanced centrifuges.
The U.S. will have to work out when to suspend the key energy, banking and economic sanctions created before the 2015 deal. Just as politically complicated: It has to decide which of the hundreds of additional Trump administration sanctions listings, frequently for terror designations, it will keep.