The US and Iran have taken a cautious, first step to revive the 2015 nuclear deal after the first full day of high-stakes indirect diplomatic meetings currently taking place in Vienna, Austria.
But it was a small move at best. It does not guarantee that both sides will return to adhering to the terms of the pact, from which then-President Donald Trump the US unilaterally withdrew in 2018.
The meetings in Vienna involved all signatories to the nuclear agreement – Iran, Russia, China, France, the UK and Germany – as well as the European Union. But the US and Iran did not speak directly to each other because Iran refused to do so. Previously, they each had separate contact with the other parties and communicated with each other through European intermediaries.
Tensions are high, and neither side wants to look like it’s going to the other. The optics are so important that the US delegation, led by Special Envoy to Iran Rob Malley, posted in a hotel across the street from the hotel where the Iranians held their meetings, and that European diplomats had to commute back and forth.
Even with those complications, the US and Iran struck a small bargain: they set up two working groups, which are considered progress by diplomatic standards.
The first working group will examine how the US can return to compliance with the deal, namely by lifting the sanctions imposed on Iran by the Trump administration following the US withdrawal. The second will examine how Iran can get back into compliance, requiring it to re-restrict its nuclear program.
“As a big step forward,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Tuesday, “this modest agreement is a welcome step, it is a constructive step, it is a potentially useful step.”
Analysts I spoke to acknowledged that this first step may not seem like much, as it merely establishes a process to discuss how both countries can get back on the deal.
But “the fact that talks have continued at a technical level shows that political leaders on both sides agree on the overall outline of the roadmap that Iran and the US need to regain compliance,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj. , a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
The challenge now is for all parties in Vienna to chart a clear path forward in the approximately 10 days they have left. That is not easy.
The US and Iran still face hurdles to get back into the deal
Experts I spoke to said it will be easier to get the US and Iran back up to the terms of the nuclear deal than to get them to sign the pact six years ago.
But that doesn’t mean it will be easy.
“The barriers to a quick resolution are significant,” said Dina Esfandiary, a senior Middle East adviser at the International Crisis Group.
Here are just three of those barriers: ensuring that Iran continues to scale back its nuclear program; agreeing on which economic sanctions the US should lift and who should go first; and figuring all this out before the upcoming Iranian elections get underway.
Let’s start with the first. On Wednesday, Iranian Atomic Energy Organization spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said his country had produced 55 kilograms (about 121 pounds) of uranium enriched to 20 percent, up from about 17 kilograms in January.
Uranium enriched to 20 percent is considered “highly enriched,” but it is a far cry from the 90 percent enrichment needed to make nuclear material for a bomb. So Iran has come a little closer – but still not particularly close – to actually having enough material to make a nuclear weapon.
Still, the 2015 nuclear deal limited Iran’s uranium enrichment to 3.67 percent and banned the country from storing more than 300 kilograms of the material.
For the deal to move forward, the US will want Iran to prove that it has stopped enriching uranium to such high levels and that it has reduced its stockpile of the material to levels set under the terms of the agreement. of 2015. That requires international inspectors to verify Iran’s compliance through activities such as accessing footage from cameras in certain nuclear facilities or even visiting sites in person, which takes time.
The second barrier is a matter of succession: should the US lift its sanctions before Iran is back in compliance, or should Iran prove it is following the rules before the financial sanctions come back? Neither side wants to move first, experts say, and it’s a major sticking point.
A related issue is exactly what sanctions the US should lift. Tehran wants virtually every sanction to be lifted in exchange for compliance with the nuclear deal, while the Biden administration only wants to consider sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear efforts. According to analysts, it will be difficult to reach an agreement there.
“The technical challenges of sanction relief and the rollback of Iran’s nuclear program are, in a sense, less difficult than the political challenge of defining the win-win logic of the country. [nuclear deal] prevails over the zero-sum logic of leverage-seeking and coercion, ”said ECFR’s Batmanghelidj.
And the third barrier is a matter of planning. Iran has presidential elections coming up in June. President Hassan Rouhani, who negotiated the original deal and put much of his political fortune on its success, is on the verge of being limited in term, with hardliners vying for his soon-to-leave office. It’s possible the next government won’t be as receptive to the nuclear deal as this one.
“The Supreme Leader may still decide it is wiser to wait until there is a new government in Iran before continuing talks with the US,” Esfandiary told me.
However, the US doesn’t seem too concerned about that. “We will negotiate with whoever is in power in Iran,” Malley, the top US envoy to Iran, said in an NPR interview on Tuesday. ‘And if we could reach an agreement before the elections, that’s fine. And if we cannot do that, we will then continue with the person in office in Tehran. “
“So we can’t ignore the reality of an election, but we can’t let it set our pace,” Malley added.
There are other issues at play, including the Biden administration’s desire to negotiate Iran’s missile program and support for terrorism, and Tehran’s continued resistance to this. These concerns may arise, among other things, when there is another full meeting between officials on Friday.
But this week’s developments show that at least both sides are still talking rather than walking away from the table. It is progress, if only barely.