The United States and Iran have taken a cautious, initial step toward reviving the 2015 nuclear deal following the first full day of high-level, indirect diplomatic meetings currently taking place in Vienna, Austria.
But it was a small move at best. This does not guarantee that both sides will return to compliance with the terms of the pact, from which then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States in 2018.
The meetings in Vienna were attended by all countries that have signed the nuclear agreement – Iran, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, as well as the European Union. But the United States and Iran did not speak directly to each other because Iran refused to do so. Rather, they met separately with other countries and communicated with each other through European intermediaries.
The tension is high and neither side wants to look like it is deviating from the other. Optics are so important that the US delegation, led by Special Envoy for Iran Rob Mali, settled in a hotel across the street from the hotel where the Iranians held their meetings, demanding that European diplomats move back and forth.
Even with these complications, the United States and Iran have struck a small deal: They have set up two working groups, which by diplomatic standards is considered progress.
The first working group will examine how the United States can return to compliance with the deal, namely by lifting the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on Iran after the withdrawal of the United States. The second will explore how Iran can return to compliance, demanding that it limit its nuclear program again.
“As a broad step forward,”
Analysts I spoke to acknowledged that this initial move may not seem like much, as it simply establishes a process for discussing how to get both parties back in line with the deal.
But “the fact that negotiations have continued at the technical level shows that the political leaders on both sides agree on the common outlines of the roadmap needed for Iran and the United States to return to compliance,” said Esfandar Batmangelidj, a visiting European Council staffer. in External Relations (ECFR).
The challenge now is for all parties in Vienna to chart a clear path forward in the 10 or so days they have left. This is not easy.
The United States and Iran still face obstacles in returning to the deal
Experts I spoke to said that forcing the United States and Iran to readjust to the terms of the nuclear deal would be easier than it was to get them to sign the pact six years ago.
But that doesn’t mean it will be easy.
“Barriers to rapid resolution are significant,” said Dina Esfandari, senior adviser on the Middle East at the International Crisis Group.
Here are just three of these barriers: ensuring that Iran continues to reduce its nuclear program; agreeing which economic sanctions should be lifted by the United States and who should go first; and to understand all this before the upcoming Iranian elections begin.
Let’s start with the first. On Wednesday, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization spokesman Behruz Kamalvandi said his country had produced 55kg of uranium enriched to 20 per cent, up from about 17kg in January.
Uranium enriched to 20 percent is considered “highly enriched,” but that is far from the 90 percent enrichment needed to make nuclear bomb material. Then Iran came a little closer – but still not very close – to the fact that it actually had enough materials to make a nuclear weapon.
Still, the 2015 nuclear deal limited uranium enrichment in Iran to 3.67 percent and banned the country from storing more than 300 kilograms of material.
To continue the deal, the United States will want Iran to prove that it has stopped enriching uranium to such high levels and that it has reduced its material reserves to the level set by the terms of the 2015 agreement. This will require international inspectors to verify that Iran complies with activities such as access to camera footage at certain nuclear facilities or even a time-consuming personal site visit.
The second barrier is the issue of consistency: Should the United States lift its sanctions before Iran returns to compliance, or should Iran prove that it complies with the rules before financial sanctions are lifted? Neither side wants to move first, experts say, and that is a major obstacle.
A related question is exactly what sanctions the United States should remove. Tehran wants almost any sanction against it lifted in exchange for compliance with nuclear agreements, while the Biden administration only wants to consider sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear efforts. Making a bargain for this will be difficult, according to analysts.
“The technical challenges of easing sanctions and lifting Iran’s nuclear program are, in a sense, less difficult than the political challenge of ensuring the logic of all those who win. [nuclear deal] prevails over logic with zero leverage and coercion, ”said Batmangelidge of the ECFR.
And the third barrier is a matter of schedule. Iran’s presidential election is set to take place in June. President Hassan Rouhani, who negotiated the initial deal and bet much of his political fortune on its success, is on track to be limited in time, and hardliners are fighting for his soon-vacated office. The next administration may not be as susceptible to the nuclear deal as this one.
“The supreme leader may still decide that it would be wiser to wait until a new administration is introduced in Iran before starting negotiations with the United States,” Esfandiary told me.
However, the United States does not seem too worried about this. “We will negotiate with anyone in power in Iran,” Mellie, the best US envoy to Iran, said in an interview with NPR on Tuesday. “And if we can reach an understanding before the election, fine. And if we can’t, we will continue after that with everyone who is on duty in Tehran. “
“So we can’t ignore the reality of the election, but we can’t let it dictate the pace,” Mali added.
There are other issues, namely the Biden administration’s desire to put the missile on Iran and the support for terrorism for negotiations and Tehran’s continuing resistance to do so. These concerns, among others, may arise when there is a new full meeting between officials on Friday.
But developments this week show that both sides are still talking instead of moving away from the table. This is progress, albeit barely.