US, Iran return to negotiating table


The U.S. and Iran on Monday held their seventh round of indirect talks as part of efforts to return to the 2015 nuclear deal. The talks came more than five months after the countries' last discussion in Vienna.

The Biden administration is stressing that diplomacy with Iran is the last, best chance to box in their nuclear ambitions and prevent Tehran from building a weapon of mass destruction.

Officials have played down reports that they are considering an interim deal with Iran, or talks outside the parameters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name for the 2015 deal.

“Our objective has not changed, it remains a mutual return to full compliance with the JCPOA, this is the best available option to restrict Iran’s nuclear program and provide a platform to address Iran’s destabilizing conduct,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.

“We're working with our European partners in lockstep, and of course we are going to continue to press for the diplomatic approach.” 

Enrique Mora, the European Union’s lead negotiator on the nuclear talks, said he felt “extremely positive” at the conclusion of the first round of discussions on Monday. 

“There is clearly a will on all the delegations to listen to the Iranian positions brought by the new team. And there is clearly a will for the Iranian delegation to engage in serious work and bring JCPOA back to life,” Mora said. “So I feel positive that we can be doing important things for the next weeks to come.” 

Former President Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and Iran began violating the terms of the agreement in 2019. President Biden, in contrast, has said he is intent on reviving the JCPOA.

A State Department spokesperson told the media that there were no updates following the conclusion of the discussions on Monday but said, “If Iran returns to Vienna ready to focus on the handful of unresolved issues from the sixth round, we can quickly reach and implement an understanding on mutual return. Otherwise, we are risking crisis.”

Republicans and Israel remain firmly opposed to the deal, saying it fails to stop Iran from ever achieving a nuclear weapon and does not address its other destabilizing activity in the region.

“Iran deserves no rewards, no bargain deals and no sanctions relief in return for their brutality,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement on Monday. “I call upon our allies around the world: Do not give in to Iran's nuclear blackmail.”

Axios reported on Monday that Israel shared intelligence with the U.S. that Iran is preparing to enrich uranium to 90 percent — the level needed to fuel a nuclear weapon. Iran is already enriching uranium to 60 percent, about 16 times more than the limits allowed under the JCPOA.

State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter on Monday said the administration would not comment on the report, but said “enrichment to 90 percent, obviously, would be a provocative act.”

There’s also concern over Iran’s blocking inspectors with the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from key nuclear facilities, in particular in the city of Karaj where Iran has reportedly begun producing centrifuges used to enrich uranium. 

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi raised concerns last week with the IAEA’s 35-country board of governors that Iran’s obstruction of nuclear inspections risks its ability to return to the JCPOA. 

Elisa Ewers, adjunct senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security’s Middle East Security program, said in a statement that Iran's return to Vienna is a signal it takes the IAEA warning seriously. 

“This suggests Iranian efforts to avoid increased pressure and buy time,” she said. “...This denial of monitoring access has been one of Iran’s more concerning steps in recent months.”

Iranian officials say they will only return to the JCPOA if the U.S. lifts all of the estimated 1,500 sanctions imposed after Trump withdrew from the deal, and ensures that successive presidents cannot tear up the agreement with a change of administrations. 

“The United States still fails to properly understand the fact that there is no way to return to the JCPOA without verifiable and effective lifting of all sanctions imposed on the Iranian nation after the US departure,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said in a statement Monday. 

While the Biden administration has said it is prepared to lift sanctions that are “inconsistent” with the deal, many of the Trump-era sanctions targeted Iranian institutions, entities and people under other authorities related to counterterrorism and human rights. 

Iran also arrived in Vienna with a new negotiating team in place, under the leadership of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the conservative, hard-liner elected in August, who is under U.S. sanctions for human rights abuses.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow focused on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the Islamic Republic has arrived in Vienna from a position of strength, with a new administration that has demonstrated increased willingness to greatly exceed the limits of the JCPOA.

“This situation of greater nuclear capability and less nuclear monitoring is designed to force Washington into providing upfront and direct sanctions relief,” Taleblu said. 

“The team at the helm today in Iran are ultra-hardliners who are more comfortable with escalation and their assessment that they can outlive any potential ‘Plan-B’ pressure track by the Biden administration. All of this will impact Iran's negotiating strategy making any agreement less likely and less valuable than before. After all, Iran's nuclear program in 2021 cannot be addressed by a deal that was deficient by the standards of 2015 or 2013.”

Ewers, of CNAS, said given Iran’s maximalist demands and its new team in place, expectations are low for what can be achieved in the first session. 

“A good outcome would be a quick resurrection of the work that was done between April and June, where some progress was made on hashing out what a mutual return to compliance would look like,” she continued. “But this would require the new Iranian delegation to be ready to deal. That’s increasingly doubtful.”

Supporters of the JCPOA are raising concern the deal remains the best course of action for both the U.S. and Iran, with sanctions relief shown to be a key incentive for Iran to adhere to the strict limits and intrusive inspections outlined in the deal, while also avoiding a dangerous military confrontation, even as the Biden administration has shown greater coordination with Israel and Gulf nations. 

"Close cooperation with U.S. allies in the region to put pressure on Iran won't produce a fundamentally different result than what the Trump administration attempted and produced the worst of all words: an Iranian nuclear program that is now closer to nuclear weapons than ever and an Iran that is more aggressive in the region and more repressive at home,” said Ali Vaez, Iran project director and senior adviser to the president for the International Crisis Group. 

“Plan B options range from unattractive to ugly. That's why both sides need more flexibility to save Plan A, which remains the least costly option for both sides.” 

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