Iran nuclear talks progress slowly as timeline dwindles – POLITICO
VIENNA — It might be now or never if the Iran nuclear deal is to survive.
U.S. and Iranian negotiators on Friday started their fourth round of talks in Vienna, expressing a mutual desire to revive the 2015 pact — under which the U.S. repealed sanctions in exchange for Iran limiting its nuclear program — but little agreement over how to get there.
Despite weeks of discussions, the two sides are stuck on which sanctions the U.S. should roll back this time around. And they disagree over what to do about Iran’s nuclear advances since 2018, when U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the original deal.
Meanwhile, looming over the talks is the Iranian election on June 18, which could bring deal-skeptic hardliners to power and scuttle the effort altogether.
With that date in mind, it’s expected the current round of talks will continue through at least this week — a likely attempt to keep things plodding forward as the timeline shrinks.
“I feel a sense of urgency. Time is not on our side,” tweeted Enrique Mora, a senior EU official overseeing the talks, on Saturday.
“Once a new Iranian leadership is in place, things could become much more difficult,” one diplomat working on the Vienna talks said in an interview.
“The goal of this fourth round is for us to come up with a consolidated text that includes the basic elements of a deal,” the diplomat added. “This is a very ambitious goal and there is of course no guarantee that we will achieve it.”
The stakes are high. The outcome of the talks will determine the future of Iran’s nuclear program and whether Iran can be prevented from having the capacity to build a bomb. It will also inevitably have spill-over effects for the dynamics between the U.S. and Israel, which opposes the nuclear deal as insufficient, and Iran’s relationship with European powers, which want to see the deal revived.
“I dare to say that I’m optimistic,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said at a press conference on Monday. “There’s a window of opportunity that will stay open for a couple of weeks, until the end of the month, but a lot of work is needed, time is limited and I hope that negotiations will enter in a phase of non-stop in Vienna.”
Talking, without talking
In Vienna, U.S. and Iranian officials have been joined by representatives from the other remaining parties to the 2015 accord — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.
The group has gone through three rounds of discussions already, with intermittent signs of progress. After the most recent session ended last week, the European diplomats expressed some frustration at the slow pace.
“We have much work, and little time left,” the representatives from Britain, France and Germany said in a joint statement. “Against this background, we would have hoped for more progress.”
One major challenge is the indirect talks. Iran still refuses to negotiate directly with the U.S., forcing European diplomats to shuttle between the U.S. and Iranian delegations, located in separate luxury hotels along Vienna’s historic Ringstrasse.
While the process is cumbersome, the delegations are essentially stuck in their hotels, as bars and restaurants are still closed under Vienna’s COVID restrictions. Instead, the delegates are reportedly surrounded by an abundance of Austrian Schnitzel and halal food in their hotels — although some have been spotted sneaking out to the McDonalds just across from the Grand Hotel, where most meetings are held.
So far, negotiations have been broken up into separate working groups. One group is examining rolling back American sanctions. Another is focused on bringing Iran’s nuclear program back into compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the agreement is officially called.
The challenge now is to merge the two dossiers into one text that outlines the steps the U.S. and Iran each must take to return to compliance. Linking the two topics inevitably means coming up with trade-offs — a contentious subject. It will also mean determining the order of these steps, a topic being discussed in a third working group. But this will likely only be discussed once the basic steps each party has to take are agreed upon.
To get there, several sticking points have to be solved.
Rolling back (some?) sanctions
The main dispute relates to the type and number of sanctions the U.S. will have to lift.
Under Trump, the U.S. left the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed crippling economic sanctions on Iran. The Trump administration then imposed additional sanctions on Iran not related to the nuclear deal in an effort to complicate any return to the agreement.
For example, the Trump administration slapped penalties on Iran’s central bank and oil companies, as well as against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, accusing them of facilitating terrorist activity. The move created a complicated web of sanctions that is difficult to disentangle.
Still, the U.S. has signaled readiness to lift some of these terrorism-related sanctions, including some targeting public and industrial sectors, in addition to the penalties originally rolled back under the 2015 accord.
“If we think that it is inconsistent with a return to the JCPOA to maintain a particular designation, then we are prepared to lift it,” said a senior U.S. State Department official. “But conversely, if we think that it is consistent with the JCPOA to maintain it, we’ll maintain it.”
The senior official said the U.S. was ready to lift sanctions and remove terror designations that would enable Iran to enjoy the same economic benefits provided for in the original JCPOA.
Yet Iran, at least publicly, is driving a hard line on the issue, insisting the U.S. must remove all Trump-imposed sanctions. Tehran also wants to independently verify that all sanctions have been removed before it will come back into compliance with the agreement after several months — essentially asking the U.S. to make its concessions first.
In the eyes of the U.S., these demands are “maximalist” and “unrealistic,” according to the State Department official.
“Iran has been demanding more from the U.S. than what the JCPOA requires,” the official said.
Addressing Iran’s nuclear program
Another sticking point is detailing the specific steps Iran must take to return to compliance with the JCPOA, given that Iran’s nuclear program is in a different place today than it was in 2015.
After Trump left the deal, Iran started making advances to its nuclear program, gaining scientific expertise and knowledge along the way. To address this, additional measures will have to be defined that were not part of the original deal.
For example, Iran has installed advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium, arguing that it was entitled to do so after the U.S. abandoned the deal. While it is possible to destroy these machines, the acquired expertise will remain.
The U.S. official criticized Iran for failing to do its part on the subject, calling it “a complication.”
“We have to find ways to address it,” the official said.
Domestic political pressures both in Tehran and in Washington also remain a risk.
Hardline forces in Iran, who do not favor a return to the deal, have recently exploited leaked audiotapes of an interview with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, in which he accused the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of intentionally pushing policies that contradicted his own diplomatic efforts.
Likewise, Republican opponents of nuclear diplomacy with Iran in Washington vehemently oppose a broad removal of terror sanctions and a return to the deal.
Nevertheless, the U.S. official said that an understanding of a return to mutual compliance can be reached “relatively swiftly” if Iran makes a political decision to do so.
With the time crunch in mind, negotiators appear willing to stay in Vienna at least through this week for this fourth round of talks, despite an EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting on Monday and the important Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr on May 13.
Meanwhile, two diplomats told POLITICO they expect an extension of the temporary agreement between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is set to expire on May 21. Under the deal, IAEA inspectors retain access to the most important nuclear sites in Iran. Once the agreement expires, Iran has threatened to cut off access and destroy data from IAEA cameras inside Iran’s nuclear plants.
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.