Salvaging the Iran Nuclear Deal: Round One in Vienna, and What Comes Next

BANNER IMAGE: Meeting of the Joint Commission of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna, Austria, April 6 2021. Courtesy of Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo.

Tough negotiations to save the Iranian nuclear deal are resuming, and they are by no means guaranteed to succeed.

The original participants in the Iran nuclear deal are gathering in Vienna for a second round of negotiations following last week’s attempt to salvage the agreement. Last week was the first time that the group had met since former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, and the first such meeting – after several failed attempts to kick-start talks – since President Joe Biden entered office pledging to seek a return to the deal. But there are limits: Iran joined on the condition that there would be no direct US–Iran talks, meaning that the other participants – the UK, France, Russia, China, Germany and the EU – have to play the role of intermediaries.

Progress So Far

By all accounts, the first round of talks which concluded last week were constructive. Two expert-level working groups were quickly formed on sanctions and nuclear issues to develop a plan for what the US and Iran would need to do to come back into compliance with the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Furthermore, all parties agreed to reconvene in Vienna this week for further discussions – a positive result in and of itself.

But it is also clear that significant hurdles exist to revitalising the deal. While the specific details of what transpired in Vienna are unknown, comments by US and Iranian officials have helped shed light on the positions of each side and the related sticking points.

During the talks and in a follow-on press call, US officials stated what was already largely assumed: that the US is willing to lift ‘all sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA and are inconsistent with the benefits that Iran expects from the JCPOA’ as part of a mutual return to compliance. The first part of the statement likely refers to the nuclear sanctions re-imposed by Trump that are clearly inconsistent with US commitments under the JCPOA.

The latter phrase is likely a nod to the sanctions the Trump administration imposed on major Iranian entities under non-nuclear sanctions authorities (i.e. terrorism), including the Central Bank of Iran, the National Iranian Oil Company and the National Iranian Tanker Company. These sanctions may not be technically inconsistent with the JCPOA (though Iran argues that they are), but if left in place they would make it virtually impossible for Iran to realise the benefits of the deal, thus preventing its revival.

Less clear, however, are the specific designations that the US believes would be consistent with its JCPOA commitments and that it therefore intends to keep in place – an issue that will almost certainly be a point of contention between Washington and Tehran. Notably, this US position is still far apart from Iran’s demand that the US remove all sanctions imposed under the Trump administration (more on that below).

The Less Obvious Nuclear Track

Compared with the sanctions track, almost nothing is known about the discussions on the nuclear track, and some reports suggest this issue took a backseat to the sanctions debate in Vienna. Iran is fond of talking about how quickly it can roll back its nuclear programme, but the US is likely to insist that such actions do not outpace the ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor them. As a sequencing matter, it would be prudent for Washington to ask that Iran first restore the deal’s added transparency measures – such as IAEA access to cameras at Iran’s nuclear facilities and Iran’s implementation of the Additional Protocol – before Iran begins its nuclear reductions.

In addition to ensuring that Iran’s nuclear rollback adheres to the letter of the JCPOA, new compromises may need to be developed for technical advances that do not have a neat solution in the deal. It is also likely that the US will closely evaluate whether and how any of Iran’s nuclear advances impact its one-year breakout timeline (not a requirement of the deal, but a result of the JCPOA’s technical constraints and an important US political selling point), or its ability to produce nuclear weapons. Examples of activities that may require discussion include Iran’s expanded production and use of advanced centrifuges, as well as recent and planned production of uranium metal. It is generally a safe bet that the nuclear issue will be easier to work out and less contentious than sanctions rollback, but it is hard to know for sure given that the US and Iran have yet to meet to dig into the details and Washington has not spoken much in public about its objectives.

While the US appeared to show some flexibility in Vienna, Iran doubled down on the key elements of its negotiating position during and after the talks, including that: 1) the US must remove all sanctions imposed by the Trump administration; 2) Iran will then verify their removal before bringing its nuclear programme back into compliance; and 3) all of this has to happen in one move, not as the result of a step-by-step process. There was also no indication that Iran was willing to engage in direct dialogue with the US. These positions are in direct conflict with US ones and, in some cases, the agreement itself. As a result, they present a significant challenge to reviving the deal. Resolving them will require creativity, compromise and a softening of Iran’s demands.

Iran’s Demands

Regarding the first demand, multiple Iranian officials have gone to great lengths to clarify that when they say all sanctions imposed under Trump must be removed, they do in fact mean all sanctions (even those that would be permissible under the deal, such as those on Iran’s missile programme or related to cyber activities and human rights issues). The US has made clear that it will not remove the full slate. So the question becomes: how much flexibility, if any, is there in Iran’s position?

It is also hard to see how the US would agree to meet Iran’s second demand: removing all sanctions, followed by a period in which Iran verifies their removal, and only then begins to dial back its nuclear programme. Trying to borrow the JCPOA’s implementation process – in which the US first issued sanctions waivers (Adoption Day) that then went into effect once Iran met its nuclear obligations (Implementation Day) – seems unlikely to work. Iran has suggested that verifying sanctions removal could include steps such as successfully exporting oil, signing new oil contracts and conducting financial transactions through multiple channels. A symbolic delivery of oil is one thing, but waiting for Iran to sign multiple new contracts is quite another.

Finally, Iran’s demand that all of this happen in one move – which appears slightly at odds with its demand that the US goes first – is likely to be the easiest to resolve, provided that Iran is willing to identify a detailed list and sequence of steps that each side will take under a ‘single’ move. Recent Iranian statements suggest that Tehran may be open to such an approach. In effect, this could resemble the JCPOA’s Implementation Plan but without identified transition periods: it would begin with countries taking the first steps, and end when they are done.

All in the Balance

It remains to be seen whether the parties can build on the constructive start in Vienna. The recent sabotage efforts against Iran’s main enrichment facility will probably make that harder in the short term. It is also still quite possible that Tehran is not intending to compromise any time soon: Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei could judge that his interests – and those of Iran – are best served by waiting until after the country’s June elections before trying to engage in serious dialogue. But that is certainly a testable hypothesis. The US and the remaining parties to the deal will get a better sense this week of whether Iran’s positions are ‘red lines’ or ‘pink lines’.

Eric Brewer is a senior fellow and deputy director at the Project on Nuclear Issues, Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Explore our related content