U.S., Iran move closer but stay apart in nuclear talks
Shuttle diplomacy between two sides begins in Vienna.,
VIENNA — European diplomats shuttled between Iranian and American officials in Vienna on Tuesday in the most serious effort so far to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, ultimately agreeing to set up two expert-level working groups to nudge the process along.
While both the Biden administration and Iran have said they’d like to resurrect the deal, which the United States exited under Donald Trump in 2018, a carefully choreographed series of moves from Tehran and Washington would be required to make that happen.
Diplomats saw Tuesday’s meeting as a small but significant step on the road to restoring the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), under which Iran accepted severe curbs on its nuclear program in return for the lifting of international sanctions.
After a series of bilateral meetings Tuesday morning, the JCPOA Joint Commission, responsible for overseeing the implementation of the deal, met in the afternoon at Vienna’s five-star Grand Hotel on the historic Ringstrasse. The commission includes all remaining parties to the JCPOA.
The American delegation installed itself just opposite at the Imperial Hotel, and diplomats from Britain, France, Germany and the European Union began shuttling between the two venues through heavy snow.
Enrique Mora, a senior EU official overseeing the talks, described the joint commission meeting as “constructive.”
“As Coordinator, I will intensify separate contacts here in Vienna with all relevant parties, including US,” Mora, deputy secretary-general of the European External Action Service, said on Twitter.
“There’s unity and ambition for a joint diplomatic process with two expert groups on nuclear implementation and sanctions lifting,” he said.
The goal of the talks, expected to last up to 10 days, is to identify concrete measures that both Washington and Teheran can take to return to compliance with the agreement. Diplomats do not expect U.S. and Iranian officials to meet directly during this round of talks.
A second round of the JCPOA Joint Commission could take place as soon as Friday.
The American delegation is led by Special Envoy Robert Malley, who helped negotiate the original deal back in 2015. “It would not serve the interests of America or American citizens if there were growing tension in the Middle East because of an expanding Iranian nuclear program. Getting back into the deal is very much, in our estimation, in the interest of the United States and of its citizens,” Malley told NPR radio Tuesday.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a Tuesday press briefing that it was “a fair expectation” for Malley to be in Vienna at least this week, adding that he wasn’t sure if the special envoy had a return ticket.
Price did not have much to add on the talks, but repeated Mora’s comments that it was “constructive.” He also reiterated the position that compliance was “necessary but insufficient,” as the U.S. eventually intends to seek a stronger deal that takes the JCPOA as a baseline.
“That task alone won’t be easy. It won’t be simple,” he said. “These talks will not be uncomplicated, but again we are encouraged by the fact that they are taking place.”
Since Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement and reimposed sanctions on Iran, Tehran has taken steps to put it out of compliance with the agreement. The moves include enriching uranium to 20 percent purity, a key step on the path to building a bomb. (Iran has always said its nuclear program is meant for peaceful purposes, not weapons.)
For the Biden team, lifting the sanctions once more is complicated because the Trump administration imposed additional punitive measures on top of those that had previously been in effect.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, who led the Iranian delegation, reiterated at the meeting of the Joint Commission that the lifting of all U.S. sanctions was the most important measure to revive the deal. He told Iranian PressTV that Iran will not accept a “step-by-step plan”. Instead, Iran wants the U.S. to take “one final step” of lifting sanctions.
“The public meeting today appeared to go according to plan and all sides are on the same page that JCPOA revival is the goal,” said Henry Rome, senior Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group in Washington. “The path forward will move in zigs and zags and not be as simple or quick as many assume, but the general trajectory toward JCPOA revival this year seems clear.”
Speaking from Tehran, Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei said Iran was neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the outcome of the meeting. “We are confident that we are on the right track, and if America’s will, seriousness and honesty is proven, it could be a good sign for a better future for this agreement and ultimately its full implementation,” he said.
The choreography of the talks, in the hands of the Austrian host government, is particularly challenging. Coronavirus testing equipment was available at multiple locations inside both hotels. And, according to officials, a decision was made to remove some paintings inside the Grand Hotel and to cover up naked statues, in an effort not to offend the Iranian delegation.
The talks are taking place ahead of an Iranian presidential election in June, in which incumbent Hassan Rouhani cannot run again. A more hardline leader would make progress on the diplomatic front more difficult. But Malley said the U.S. will “negotiate with whoever is in power in Iran.”
“We can’t ignore the reality of an election, but we can’t let it dictate our pace either,” he said.
Benjamin Din and Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.
This story has been updated.