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VIENNA – It could be now or never if the Iranian nuclear deal is to survive.
The US and Iran negotiators started their fourth round of talks in Vienna on Friday. They have expressed a mutual desire to revive the 2015 pact, after which the US lifted sanctions in exchange for Iran, which is restricting its nuclear program.
Despite weeks of discussions, both sides are deadlocked as to which sanctions the US should fall back on this time. And they disagree on what to do about Iran’s nuclear advances since 2018, when US President Donald Trump pulled out of the original deal.
Meanwhile, Iran’s June 18 elections are on the brink of talks that could bring deal-skeptical hardliners to power and undermine the effort altogether.
With that date in mind, the current round of talks is expected to resume at least this week – a likely attempt to move things forward as the timeline gets shorter.
“I feel a sense of urgency. Time is not on our side. ” tweeted Enrique Mora, a senior EU official who is overseeing the talks, on Saturday.
“Once a new Iranian leadership is in place, things could get much more difficult,” a diplomat who worked on the Vienna Talks said in an interview.
“The aim of this fourth round is to produce a consolidated text that contains the basic elements of a business,” added the diplomat. “This is a very ambitious goal and of course there is no guarantee that we will achieve it.”
There is a lot at stake. The outcome of the talks will determine the future of Iran’s nuclear program and whether it can prevent Iran from having the ability to build a bomb. It will inevitably also have repercussions on the US-Israel dynamics, which speak out against the nuclear deal as inadequate, and on Iran’s relationship with the European powers that want the deal to be revived.
“I dare to say that I am optimistic,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell at a press conference on Monday. “There is a time window that will remain open for a few weeks until the end of the month, but a lot of work is required, time is limited and I hope that negotiations in Vienna will begin in a phase without interruption. ”
In Vienna, representatives of the other remaining parties to the 2015 agreement – the UK, China, France, Germany and Russia – joined US and Iranian officials.
The group has already gone through three roundtables with temporary signs of progress. After the last meeting last week, European diplomats expressed frustration at the slow pace.
“We have a lot of work and little time,” said the representatives from Great Britain, France and Germany in a joint statement. “Against this background, we would have hoped for further progress.”
The indirect conversations are a major challenge. Iran still refuses to negotiate directly with the US, forcing European diplomats to shuttle between the US and Iranian delegations, which are located in separate luxury hotels on Vienna’s historic Ringstrasse.
While the process is cumbersome, delegations are essentially stuck in their hotels as bars and restaurants are still closed under Vienna’s COVID restrictions. Instead, delegates are reportedly surrounded by an abundance of Austrian schnitzel and halal food at their hotels – although some have been seen sneaking to the McDonalds directly across from the Grand Hotel, where most of the meetings take place.
So far the negotiations have been divided into separate working groups. A group is examining the withdrawal of American sanctions. Another goal is to bring the Iranian nuclear program back into line with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the agreement is officially called.
The challenge now is to combine the two dossiers into one text describing the steps the US and Iran will each need to take to return to compliance. Linking the two issues inevitably means compromises – a controversial issue. It also means determining the order of these steps, a topic that will be discussed in a third working group. However, this will likely not be discussed until the basic steps each party must take are agreed.
To get there, several sticking points have to be solved.
The main dispute concerns the type and number of sanctions the US must lift.
Under Trump, the US left the Iranian nuclear deal in 2018 and again imposed crippling economic sanctions against Iran. The Trump administration then imposed additional sanctions on Iran, unrelated to the nuclear deal, to make it more difficult to return to the deal.
For example, the Trump administration imposed penalties on the Iranian central bank and oil companies, as well as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and accused them of facilitating terrorist activities. The move created an intricate web of penalties that is difficult to untangle.
Still, the US has signaled a willingness to lift some of these terrorist sanctions, including some sanctions against the public and industrial sectors, in addition to those that were originally withdrawn under the 2015 agreement.
“If we feel that keeping a particular designation is incompatible with a return to the JCPOA, we are ready to revoke it,” said a senior State Department official. “But conversely, if we think compliance with the JCPOA is consistent, we will maintain it.”
The senior official said the US was ready to lift sanctions and remove terrorist labels that would allow Iran to reap the same economic benefits as the original JCPOA.
Still, Iran is at least publicly taking a hard line on this issue, insisting that the US must lift all sanctions imposed by Trump. Tehran also wants to independently verify that all sanctions have been lifted before being brought back into line with the agreement after a few months. In essence, the US is being asked to make its concessions first.
According to the State Department official, these demands are “maximalist” and “unrealistic” in the eyes of the US.
“Iran has asked more of the US than the JCPOA asked,” the official said.
Another sticking point is the detailed description of the specific steps Iran must take to return to JCPOA compliance, as the Iranian nuclear program is now in a different location than in 2015.
After Trump left the deal, Iran made progress on its nuclear program, gaining scientific expertise and knowledge in the process. To fix this, additional measures need to be defined that were not part of the original deal.
For example, Iran installed advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium, arguing that it was entitled to do so after the US abandoned the deal. While it is possible to destroy these machines, the expertise acquired remains intact.
The US official criticized Iran for failing to do its part on the issue, calling it “a complication”.
“We have to find ways to address this,” said the official.
Domestic pressures in both Tehran and Washington also remain a risk.
Hardline forces in Iran who do not advocate a return to the deal have exploited recently leaked tapes of an interview with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in which he accused the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of deliberately promoting measures that contradicted its own diplomatic efforts.
Republican opponents of nuclear diplomacy with Iran are also vehemently opposed in Washington to an extensive lifting of the terrorist sanctions and a return to the agreement.
Still, the US official said an understanding of a return to mutual compliance can be achieved “relatively quickly” if Iran makes a political decision to do so.
In view of the time crisis, the negotiators seem ready to stay in Vienna at least until this week for this fourth round of talks, despite a meeting of the EU Foreign Council on Monday and the important Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr on May 13th.
Meanwhile, two diplomats told POLITICO that they were expecting an extension of the temporary agreement between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is due to expire on May 21 in Iran. After the expiry of the agreement, Iran threatened to block access to data from IAEA cameras in Iran’s nuclear power plants and to destroy them.
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed to the reporting.