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A deal is in sight – depending on who you ask.
The negotiators returned to the Austrian capital on Tuesday for the fifth – and likely final – round of discussions to bring the US and Iran back into line with a 2015 nuclear deal that curbed Tehran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions easing.
Those involved say a deal is achievable and warn that critical questions are only partially answered. International inspectors were able to temporarily renew a nuclear surveillance deal with Iran to keep talks from breaking down prematurely, and several countries are sending out signals of optimism for the time being.
The discussions brought together numerous world powers – not just the US and Iran, but also Great Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia. For weeks officials and diplomats have been commuting between two luxurious Vienna hotels and arguing over arcane details about the uranium enrichment and centrifuges of Iran as well as complicated and diverse American sanctions.
And now the time has come to see if all talks can actually revive the deal that has been life sustaining since former US President Donald Trump’s retirement in 2018. The decision sparked a cycle of retaliation, with Iran gradually penalizing the deal as Trump violated Tehran – across Europe.
The outcome of the talks will not only have far-reaching implications for stability in the Middle East, but will also set the course for relations between the US and Iran in the years to come. In particular, this will also help show whether Europe can play a strong role in the region – especially after the EU has been largely on the sidelines during the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas.
“I think an agreement is possible in this round if there is enough political will,” a diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told POLITICO in Vienna. “Of course, there is no guarantee that important issues will be resolved, but I think it is possible that we will come to a positive conclusion to the talks before the Iranian elections on June 18th.”
The negotiators arrived on Tuesday individually in diplomatic limousines and entered the lobby of the closely guarded Grand Hotel, just a few blocks from the legendary Vienna State Opera.
During the talks, Russia’s chief negotiator, Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov, can usually enjoy one last cigarette by the hotel entrance before ducking inside. Curious journalists have come to view the ritual as a “smoke signal” indicating that the highly confidential conversations are about to begin.
The US delegation is stationed in the Hotel Imperial on the other side of the Ringstrasse. Since the US left the deal in 2018, Iran has refused to hold direct talks with the Americans. Instead, European mediators cross the street from the Grand Hotel to provide information and send messages back to the Americans, under the direction of the Special Envoy for Iran, Robert Malley.
The diplomatic dance is watched by a group of reporters who have gathered outside under a tarpaulin. It is often a fruitless waiting game. “I bet three Jagermeisters that no one will make a statement,” joked a reporter on Tuesday. In fact, after an hour of talks, negotiators showed up without speaking to the press.
Despite the quiet start, there is talk that the current round of talks could bring a breakthrough.
The negotiators are working on a plan that sets out the steps Iran and the US each must take to revert to the Iranian nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
In essence, the plan describes how Iran would reverse recent advances in the nuclear program in exchange for widespread relief from US sanctions. The plan will also determine the order of these steps.
But to get there, negotiators need to remove the sticking points that have emerged in previous rounds of talks. For example, there is still a lot of disagreement about what to do with Iran’s advanced centrifuges, the machines used to enrich uranium. Will they be destroyed or just mothballed?
It is also unclear what specific sanctions the US will be pulling back. Iran is calling on the US to lift all of its sanctions – not just those re-imposed after the deal was signed, but the additional penalties Trump later imposed. The US has rejected this “maximalist” position.
“We will have to see if Iran and the US have received additional instructions in the past few days that will make it easier for us to move forward,” said the diplomat.
Even so, Ulyanov was still hopeful on Tuesday. “The Joint Commission today opened the fifth and likely final round of Vienna talks on restoring the JCPOA,” he said tweeted.
Abbas Araghchi, Iranian deputy foreign minister and chief negotiator, echoed the Russian remarks: saying He hoped to “find a definitive solution” in the talks that are due to take place in the coming days, adding that “important issues” still need to be “fixed”.
The US is more cautious.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News on Sunday that Iran was still not making enough progress on the talks.
“I think Iran knows what to do to get compliant again on the nuclear side,” he said in “This Week”. “And what we haven’t seen yet is whether Iran is ready and willing to make a decision to do what it has to do.”
Diplomats from Great Britain, France and Germany adopted a similar cautious tone last week after the previous round of talks concluded. “Success is not guaranteed because there are still some very difficult questions ahead of us,” they told reporters. But they also added that the “contours of a business” were slowly emerging.
However, Henry Rome, a senior Iranian analyst with the Eurasia Group in Washington, said that Iran’s decision to approve mostly stubborn candidates for the presidential election shows that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may be more willing to promise a deal approve June 18, a close ally will emerge.
The development, Rome wrote in an analysis on Tuesday, “could give Khamenei more reason to advance the JCPOA timeline.”
He argued that the move “increases the likelihood that the nuclear deal could be revived before the presidential election, although a deal after the elections early in the third quarter is the most likely scenario.”
The fifth round of talks also began the day after Iran agreed to a month-long extension of a temporary inspection agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that will allow UN inspectors continuous access to nuclear sites in Iran until June 24.
Without this expansion, Iran would have been able to erase all the data recorded by the IAEA cameras in the Iranian nuclear power plants and essentially let the UN nuclear watchdog “fly blind”, as IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi put it. The expansion will not erase the data, but Iran continues to insist that the footage be kept until sanctions are lifted and the Iranian nuclear deal is restored.
“That’s not ideal,” said Grossi. “This is like an emergency device that we developed so that we can continue these monitoring activities.”
The last minute extension prevented a crisis in the nuclear talks and prevented a scenario in which the international community would have no way to review Iran’s nuclear activities.
Additional reporting from Rym Momtaz.