Iran and US meet for talks to salvage nuclear deal

Deputy secretary general / political director of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Enrique Mora ( R ), who is coordinating the JCPOA talks, leaves a hotel in Vienna on Tuesday 6 April 2021. (EPA / Christian Bruna)

Iran and the United States began indirect talks in Vienna on Tuesday aimed at salvaging the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by the Trump administration nearly three years ago.

Representatives from the two countries were joined by the UK, China, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union - all signatories to the agreement - for talks aimed at bringing the US back into the deal and to return Iran to full compliance with it.

Since 2018, Tehran has been gradually breaching terms of the nuclear pact, in response to Washington’s withdrawal from the accord and its reimposition of crippling economic sanctions on Iran.

In January, Iran resumed the enriching of uranium to 20 per cent purity, in its most significant breach yet, sparking further urgency to bring both sides to the table.

The US and Iran will not communicate directly during the talks as Iran has reportedly refused to do so until the US lifts the sanctions; however, representatives from both countries will be present. But with concerns that neither country will be willing to make the first move, it remains to be seen whether the meeting will achieve a breakthrough.

What has happened so far? The Iran nuclear deal - known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was struck between Iran and the six other signatories in 2015. The aim was to ensure Iran could not build a nuclear weapon - an ambition Tehran denies. Under the accord, Iran would stop some nuclear work in return for an end to sanctions, including allowing Iran to resume selling oil on international markets.

But in 2018, President Trump pulled out of the deal, and re-imposed then enhanced harsh economic sanctions on Iran. In response, Iran has gradually overstepped the deal’s limits on its nuclear programme, including enriching uranium beyond the limits in the agreement and building new, more advanced centrifuges.

Another key area where Iran has been reducing cooperation is on the so-called additional protocol, which gives powers to the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to carry out snap inspections at sites not declared to the agency.

In February, after Iran passed a law that included ending snap inspections by the IAEA, the two sides stuck a temporary deal to keep “necessary” monitoring for another three months. The 90-day window provides another important deadline in making progress towards a renewed nuclear deal.

What have both sides said? Both Iran and the US have insisted they want to return to the deal. However, both sides have said they want the other to make the first move, making an easy resolution unlikely.

Iran has made it clear that it will not return to the deal until the US guarantees that it will lift all sanctions against Tehran, which the government believes cost its economy over $997 billion a year.

“Our agenda during the meeting [in Vienna] will be removal of all US sanctions against Iran ... as our supreme leader has said repeatedly, anything less than that will not be accepted by Tehran,” an Iranian official told Reuters on Tuesday. The official said that once the US had rejoined the deal and the sanctions were lifted, Iran could then “quickly reverse its nuclear steps” and come back into compliance.

There is agreement that the quickest way to revive the deal is for both sides to re-enter it in its original form. “There's a great deal of frustration in Tehran at the moment,” said Dina Esfandiary, senior adviser at the International Crisis Group (ICC), speaking at an event hosted by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy on Tuesday. “From their perspective there is no scope for any dialogue on anything else until there is first a return to the JCPOA as is.”

However, President Biden has said US re-entry will first require negotiations with Iran regarding extending time limits in the accord that allow Iran to resume particular nuclear enrichment activities. Biden has also said he wants to put limits on Iran’s missile programme and other activities, but there are concerns these negotiations would slow down the process.

The US state department said in a press briefing earlier this week that the focus of the talks will be on “the nuclear steps that Iran would need to take in order to return to compliance” with the nuclear accord. Tehran has so far rejected any further talks.

What can we expect from the talks? The talks aim to create a 'road map' for a return of both countries to compliance with the deal. Diplomats from the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran will meet, with the EU as chair, and discuss how to revitalise the accord.

The US delegation, led by special envoy to Iran, Robert Malley, are reportedly meeting at one hotel with Iran's team, led by deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi, meeting at another - and the EU acting as the go-between.

As Iran refuses to meet US diplomats face to face, the indirect process will likely add even more time to the process. If a rough agreement can be reached, it's expected that officials from Iran and the US would then meet to finalise the details.

What are the next steps? The talks are expected to last for some time, though officials have said they hope an agreement can be reached in the next few months before Iranian presidential elections in June, which would bind any new government to its terms. However, the timeline is unclear - if parties do not agree to return to the original deal and a whole new negotiation has to take place, it could be far longer.

“Time is running against us, and with the approaching Iran presidential elections we don't have much time to discuss a so-called roadmap for simultaneous steps from the US and Iran side,” said Anton Khlopkov, founding director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies in Russia during the GCSP event. “Which means that hopefully colleagues who are in Vienna today and who will stay in Vienna for the upcoming weeks will be pragmatic enough, and will not try to add something new to the deal which was adapted in July 2015.”