U.S. begins indirect talks with Iran Tuesday on reentering nuclear deal
“The primary issues to be discussed are actually quite simple,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters Monday. “They are, on the one hand, the nuclear steps that Iran would need to take” to return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear accord, “and the sanctions relief steps that the United States would need to take.”
But while the meeting breaks a months-long impasse between the two sides, success is expected to be anything but simple.
The meeting, to be held in Vienna, will be attended by senior officials of the six countries remaining in the deal following U.S. withdrawal in May 2018 — Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran. The Europeans will form working groups among the participants and serve as go-betweens for the United States and Iran, who plan no face-to-face encounters.
No timetable has been announced. In an ideal world for both sides, agreement will be reached within two months, before Iran holds its presidential election in June. Hard-liners are favored to win and might drive a harder bargain.
“I think the Biden administration made a miscalculation in delaying this process,” Suzanne DiMaggio of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in a briefing for reporters. “But Vienna is an opportunity for course correction.”
Biden officials disagree that they dragged their feet, noting that the new administration has been consumed with its domestic agenda, and that Iran has refused its offer of direct talks. Until recently, both Tehran and Washington insisted that the other first take unilateral steps to return to compliance with the terms of the agreement.
The issue moved forward after the United States offered indirect discussions and, last week, Iran agreed to an offer that the European Union would host the separate-room talks.
“We don’t anticipate at present that there will be direct talks with Iran, though of course we remain open to them. And so, we’ll have to see how things go, starting early this week,” Price said.
Publicly, Iran still rejects the kind of simultaneous, sequential steps toward compliance that the administration envisions. “We have only one step and not step-by-step [lifting of sanctions,] and this one step includes the lifting of all sanctions imposed by the United States,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a Tehran news conference Monday, according to Iran’s PressTV.
“In return, Iran will be ready to reverse its remedial measures, which were taken because of the opposite side’s violation of the treaty,” Khatibzadeh said, repeating a bottom line voiced in recent weeks by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
“Clearly, if they stick to that position we’re not going anywhere,” DiMaggio said. “My sense is this is an opening bid” and “the Iranians will have to move back” to accepting simultaneous actions, she said.
The “remedial measures” Iran began a year after President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal nearly three years ago include restarting uranium enrichment at a higher level than what was allowed by the accord and bringing online advanced, deal-banned centrifuges. U.S. officials now estimate that Iran’s “breakout time” — the amount of time necessary to assemble sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon — which had increased to at least a year under the restrictions, has now dropped to a few months.
U.S. opponents of the deal have argued that stepped-up enrichment has gained Iran incalculable knowledge that no return to its original terms can eliminate. But “the Biden administration has to accept increased knowledge. There isn’t anything we can do about it,” said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association.
“The critical question is, can it be managed . . . Can the nonproliferation benefits of the JCPOA still be restored,” she said of the agreement formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “I would say certainly.”
For Iran, reversal back to compliance with the agreement by mothballing centrifuges and turning over enriched uranium may be far more simple than what it demands the United States do to return to the deal.
Chief among the complications are the more than 1,500 sanctions and designations that Trump piled on Iran after withdrawing from the accord, even as he reinstated the nuclear-related measures that had been lifted under the deal.
Iran has demanded a complete return to where things stood when the deal was signed in 2015. But the agreement applied only to nuclear-related sanctions; the new Trump-imposed measures were imposed for a range of alleged sins, from attempts to build a nuclear weapon — a goal that Iran has consistently denied — to expanding its ballistic missile program, supporting proxy forces fighting regional battles and allegedly sponsoring state terrorism.
As they approached the talks, U.S. officials have spent weeks trying to pick apart the web of Trump sanctions, which deal supporters charge were intentionally selected to make it impossible for a new administration to change policy. Among them are anti-terrorism sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank and the terrorism designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian military responsible for proxies and domestic repression.
“When Donald Trump violated the JCPOA . . . he resorted to a policy of maximum pressure on Iran . . . which included sanctioning everything that his team could think of, whether or not it was nuclear related,” said Thomas Countryman, board chair of the Arms Control Association and a career diplomat who served as acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.
“Both Trump administration officials and the regime-change lobby here in Washington were and still are very explicit that the purpose was to make it as difficult as possible for a successor administration to remove sanctions,” he said.