The U.S. and Iran are set to resume indirect talks over reviving the 2015 nuclear agreement in Vienna on Tuesday, renewing hopes that President Joe Biden may be able to bring the U.S. back into the deal, fulfilling a major diplomatic priority for his administration.
The two countries won’t be meeting face-to-face, which Iran has ruled out for the time being, but will be engaging in shuttle diplomacy through the other countries party to the deal: the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, and China. In other words, as a European diplomat explained to Reuters, “Iran and the U.S. will be in the same town, but not the same room.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. was open to direct talks with Iran, but did not anticipate any immediate breakthroughs. White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed that the administration was ready to engage directly with Tehran but did not see that happening this week. “We are very clear-eyed about the hurdles that remain,” Psaki said.
Price said the talks would be structured around working groups that the E.U. will form with Iran and the other signatories. An E.U. official told Reuters that the talks would focus on parallel steps that the U.S. and Iran could take to rebuild the deal, from which former president Donald Trump withdrew in 2018. The hope is to reach an agreement within two months.
The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action lifted a variety of U.S. and international sanctions on Iran, in exchange for curbing Iran’s ability to enrich uranium and develop nuclear weapons. U.S. Iran hawks, primarily on the right, have long derided the deal for what they have characterized as exchanging permanent sanctions relief for a temporary pause in nuclear activity, and for not covering other issues like Iran’s ballistic missiles, and its funding and arming of militant proxies throughout the Middle East. Trump was a prominent critic of the JCPOA before and during his presidency, and ultimately tore it up with the hope of either forcing Iran to capitulate to a less favorable agreement or causing an economic collapse that would implode the theocratic regime in Tehran.
Trump’s gambit did not work out as planned. Iran responded by engaging in brinkmanship, directly and indirectly attacking U.S. allies and interests in the region. Eventually, the regime reasoned that if the U.S. and other parties were not holding up their end of the deal in terms of sanctions relief, Iran was no longer obligated to halt its nuclear activities. Since 2019, the country has gradually breached its commitments under the JCPOA: In January, it resumed 20 percent uranium enrichment at its Fordow nuclear facility, and by February, the International Atomic Energy Agency learned that it had produced uranium metal.
The sticking point in the frozen negotiations over reentering the agreement is the age-old “you first” problem, familiar to any child who has ever cajoled a friend to make a trade or partake in a scary activity. Both parties, in theory, want to restore the status quo ante and reactivate the deal, but neither is willing to act until the other side first demonstrates its trustworthiness.
Iran says it will scale back its nuclear activities only once all U.S. sanctions are lifted. “No step-by-step plan is being considered,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Iranian state television Saturday. Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted on Friday that the aim of the talks was to “rapidly finalize sanction-lifting and nuclear measures for choreographed removal of all sanctions, followed by Iran ceasing remedial measures.” From Iran’s perspective, the U.S. is at fault for abandoning the deal, so it is only just that we should move first toward restoring it.
In Washington, meanwhile, mistrust of Iran still runs high in the foreign-policy Establishment, and the Biden administration faces a great deal of political pressure to revive the deal without being seen as taking orders from Tehran. Biden insisted throughout his 2020 presidential campaign that he would only lift sanctions if Iran returned to the agreed-upon limits to its production of nuclear material. In February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the administration wanted to go beyond merely restoring the JCPOA and expand it to include those other thorny issues, like missiles and proxy warfare. Iran sees these suggestions as the U.S. moving the goalposts and has rejected them outright.
Accordingly, the only way out of this diplomatic impasse is for intermediaries to devise a plan for both countries to act simultaneously. This would be similar to what they did when the JCPOA was originally agreed upon in 2015, and if all goes well, figuring out these synchronized activities will be a major focal point of the shuttle diplomacy in Vienna this week.
The objective of reaching some kind of deal in two months is not an arbitrary deadline, but one dictated by political considerations. Iran’s presidential elections are set for June, and the reformist incumbent president Hassan Rouhani is not eligible to stand for reelection. The heightened tensions during the Trump years strengthened Iran’s hard-line politicians who reject rapprochement with the U.S., and the election is expected to usher in a more fundamentalist government in Tehran that is less likely to engage in constructive diplomacy. However, real power in Iran lies with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has green-lit Rouhani’s diplomatic efforts and would likely ensure that any new deal forged in the next two months is upheld by the next government.
This narrow window of opportunity raises the stakes for this week’s events in Vienna considerably. The good news is that everyone involved wants to bring the JCPOA back to life, but the differences between Washington and Tehran over what this process and its end result should look like may still be insurmountable. There is a risk that both Biden and Rouhani overplay their hands and try to use the high-pressure situation to force the other side into a less favorable agreement, then end up with nothing. That kind of hardball doesn’t seem to be Biden’s style, but coming off four years of Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy, the Iranians are in no mood to trust the good intentions of any American president. In other words, the Europeans have their work cut out for them.
One recent event that could affect the negotiations is a 25-year strategic partnership agreement signed last week between Iran and China, which includes plans for Chinese investment in Iran, oil sales, and the establishment of a Chinese-Iranian bank that could help Iran evade international sanctions. This deal has raised concerns in Washington, but has also been overinterpreted as China picking a side in the Middle East’s regional great power struggle. In reality, China has lots of these deals in the region, including with Iran’s archrivals: U.S. partners and allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It is more a vague statement of intent on China’s part than a firm commitment to invest a specific amount of money in Iran. Beijing has studiously avoided taking sides, burning bridges, or getting involved in conflicts in the Middle East. Beijing may enjoy undermining U.S. interests by propping up Iran, but it’s not about to undermine its own economic interests by siding with Iran against the world.
Iran may still attempt to use its partnership with China as leverage in the nuclear talks, but this would probably backfire. It would be equally detrimental for the American side to insist on expanding the scope of the deal as a condition for restoring it. The original deal took around two years to negotiate, and avoiding Iran’s missile program and other military activities was part of the cost of reaching any deal at all; raising new issues now and expecting an agreement in two months is a pipe dream. If Biden wants to deprioritize the Middle East and focus on other diplomatic agendas in the years to come, the best possible outcome is a mechanism for restoring the JCPOA more or less as it was before Trump tore it up. The same is true for Iran’s reformist leaders, if they hope to make a positive case for their agenda to voters this June and in the future.
With huge incentives and motivation on both sides, the prospects for this week’s talks should be more promising than they are. The diplomats working on it are well-versed in the challenges at hand: Biden’s foreign-policy team includes many of the same figures who worked on the Iran deal during the Obama administration. So there are reasons to be hopeful that some kind of breakthrough could be at hand. If this week’s indirect talks don’t go anywhere, however, the prospects for restoring the deal may be off the table for the foreseeable future.