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The countries will negotiate next week through intermediaries in Vienna to try to bring both back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement.
WASHINGTON — After weeks of failed starts and back-channel exchanges, Iran and the United States will, next week in Vienna, begin exchanging ideas about how to restore the 2015 nuclear deal. Initially, though, there will be no direct talks between the two countries, officials in Europe and the United States said on Friday.
Restoring the nuclear agreement would be a major step, nearly three years after President Donald J. Trump scrapped it, and perhaps begin a thaw in the frozen hostility between the two countries.
But it is far from clear, officials said, that the complex diplomatic choreography now under discussion — in which American sanctions would be lifted as Iran cuts back on its production of nuclear fuel and allows international inspectors full access to its facilities — could happen before the Iranian presidential election in June. But even an agreement in principle before the election, if approved by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could lock in the new Iranian government, American and European officials say.
The development came six weeks after the United States initially offered to join European nations in what would be the first substantial diplomacy with Tehran in more than four years. The delay seemed to reflect infighting in Iran between elements of the government that are desperate to end the crushing sanctions and hard-liners in the military and among the clerics who have demanded reparations for the damage done by Mr. Trump’s decision to pull out of the Obama-era accord.
While President Biden said repeatedly during the 2020 presidential campaign that restoring the agreement was the best way to constrain Iran’s ambitions, his top national security advisers have also said restoration alone was not enough. Ultimately, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has said, the next Iran accord must be “longer and stronger,” suggesting it would have to go beyond 2030, when many of the fuel-production constraints in the last agreement expire.
Equally important in the view of Biden administration officials, a new deal would have to be linked to restraints on Iran’s missile abilities and its support for terrorist groups, as well as on its aid to the Syrian government.
All of that suggests months, if not years, of negotiations. But at the State Department on Friday, the department’s deputy spokeswoman, Jalina Porter, told reporters that “this is a healthy first step forward.”
In the talks in Vienna — during which American officials would be down the hall while British, German, French, Chinese and Russian officials meet with Iran — the discussion will focus on “the nuclear steps that Iran would need to take in order to return to compliance with the terms of the J.C.P.O.A.,” Ms. Porter said, using initials for what is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
And that would be joined with discussion of “the sanctions relief steps that the United States would need to take in order to return to compliance, as well,” she said, an acknowledgment that the United States is, currently, also in violation of the accord.
Ms. Porter offered no details, including whether the special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, would attend the talks. Mr. Malley, a friend of Mr. Blinken’s since they attended high school together in Paris, was a key player in the Iran negotiations that culminated in a deal in 2015.
Mr. Biden has reassembled, in different positions, many of the key American players in those negotiations. Mr. Blinken’s incoming deputy, Wendy R. Sherman, who is awaiting confirmation by the Senate, was the lead day-to-day negotiator. The two men who began secret negotiations with Iran eight years ago, Jake Sullivan and William J. Burns, are now Mr. Biden’s national security adviser and his C.I.A. director.
All are deeply familiar with the workings of Iran’s nuclear program — and the shortcomings of the 2015 deal. But it is far from clear that they can negotiate a better one, especially if, as expected, one of the several candidates with deep ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which intelligence officials say runs the military side of the nuclear program, emerges as the next Iranian president.
American officials said they were willing to meet directly with the Iranians, but the Iranian government has insisted on working through the Europeans. And because the Iranians have taken several positions in recent weeks — first demanding reparations, then suggesting some kind of exchange of good-will gestures — it is unclear what they will propose in Vienna.
Sequencing the commitments to return both countries to the deal is complicated, partly because both Washington and Tehran have insisted that the other side make the first move.
But in a talk to thousands of participants in a conversation on Clubhouse, an audio-chat app, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, said, “I am optimistic.”
Mr. Salehi, who wrote his dissertation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on fast-neutron reactors before the Iranian revolution, noted that all of the steps that Iran has taken to enrich nuclear fuel at higher levels are reversible in a matter of months.
He said those steps have given Iran leverage in negotiations, adding, “You can’t bargain until you have power.”
Mr. Salehi, too, was a key figure in the 2015 negotiations, as was Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who said in a Clubhouse meeting on Wednesday that “we are willing to choreograph moves” with the United States.
“We are not opposed to temporary steps,” he added, “but our position is a permanent approach is more productive.”
But if history is any guide, even getting to the temporary steps will be difficult.
Republicans in Congress, who were overwhelmingly against the 2015 deal — along with some prominent Democrats — are already charging that the Biden administration is lifting pressure on Tehran too soon. Mr. Biden must be careful not to give Republicans in the Senate any sense that he is giving in to Iranian demands.
And in Iran, there is little trust in the United States after Mr. Trump reneged on his predecessor’s deal. Mr. Biden’s successor, they note, could do just what Mr. Trump did.
“It is not surprising that Iran is divided internally,” said R. Nicholas Burns, who, as a senior State Department official under President George W. Bush, attempted the first nuclear negotiations with Iran. “Back in 2005-2008,” he said, when allies “first organized to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, the Iranians were similarly stymied by domestic arguments over how and when to negotiate.”
But a senior Biden administration official said that in this case, the United States would not seek to retain some nuclear-related sanctions for leverage, arguing that the “maximum pressure” campaign waged against Iran by the Trump administration had failed.
While the original participants in the Iran deal — except for the United States because it is not currently a member of the agreement — work out a general road map, the official said, Iran and the United States would most likely meet to finalize the details of the diplomatic choreography.
The European Union issued a chairman’s statement after the meeting on Friday announcing the talks in Vienna “in order to clearly identify sanctions lifting and nuclear implementation measures.” All parties, including Russia and China, “emphasized their commitment to preserve the J.C.P.O.A.,” the statement said.
But there are many possible obstacles.
Iran has interpreted the inspection requirements of the deal narrowly, and has declined to answer questions from the International Atomic Energy Agency about radioactive particles that inspectors found at sites that have never been declared by Tehran as part of the nuclear program.
Even if the status quo is restored, the Biden administration will be left with the issues that the 2015 agreement left unaddressed. What kind of limits could be placed on Iran after 2030, when, under the fractured deal, the country would be free to produce as much nuclear fuel as it wants? And how can the world constrain Iran’s missile programs and military support in the Middle East for groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and Shiite militias, as well as for the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad?
Russia’s ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, said that “the impression is that we are on the right track, but the way ahead will not be easy and will require intensive efforts.”