Iran is set to resume nuclear talks with world powers in Vienna this week as diplomats make another push to revive floundering efforts to save the 2015 accord and rein in the Islamic republic’s atomic activities.
Iran’s negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani and US envoy Rob Malley were both heading to the Austrian capital on Wednesday where they will discuss fresh proposals put forward by the EU intended to get a deal over the line.
Representatives of other signatories to the accord, including Russia and China, were also expected to attend, making it the first time all the parties to the deal have held talks in Vienna since March.
The Biden administration and Iran have been holding indirect talks brokered by the EU for more than a year in a bid to strike an agreement that would lead to the US rejoining the accord and lifting many sanctions in return for Iran drastically reducing its nuclear activity.
Western diplomats say the parties were close to finalising a deal at the last talks in Vienna five months ago. But Washington and Tehran have been unable to resolve key outstanding issues as concerns have mounted that the deadlocked process has been edging towards total collapse.
The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote in the FT last week that he had “put on the table a text that addresses, in precise detail, the sanctions lifting as well as the nuclear steps needed to restore [the accord]”.
“I have concluded that the space for additional significant compromises has been exhausted,” he wrote.
It was not immediately clear what the EU is proposing, but one of Iran’s main demands has been that the Biden administration offers guarantees that the US not be able to unilaterally abandon the deal in the future. The Islamic republic also wants greater sanctions relief to ensure it receives the full economic benefits of the accord.
Under the agreement, reached in 2015, Iran rolled back its uranium enrichment activities in exchange for the US lifting many sanctions.
The nuclear crisis was triggered after then US president Donald Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018 and imposed hundreds of sanctions on the republic, strangling Iran’s economy and cutting the nation off from the global financial system.
Iran wants assurances that history will not be repeated. But experts say it is impossible for Washington to deliver the guarantees Tehran is seeking, leading diplomats to seek compromises.
Malley said on social media that the US welcomed the EU’s efforts, but cautioned that “our expectations are in check”.
The last brief indirect talks between Iran and the US held in Qatar in June ended without any progress, exacerbating the frustrations of western diplomats who accuse Tehran of intransigence. Iranian officials blame the US for the stalemate, saying Tehran is willing to sign if its conditions are met.
But President Joe Biden has already ruled out bowing to one of Iran’s main demands — the lifting of the terrorist designation imposed by Trump on the elite Revolutionary Guards.
A US state department spokesperson said in order to reach a deal “Iran will have to drop demands that are extraneous” to the accord. “We hope that will be the case, though at this stage our overall expectations remain low,” the spokesperson said.
Iran, which is enriching uranium close to weapons grade, signalled this week it would continue expanding its nuclear activity by announcing that an additional 1,000 advanced centrifuges had been installed at one of its main nuclear sites.
Analysts say neither side wants to be blamed for collapsing the talks, but the scale of Iran’s nuclear activity means the uneasy limbo is ultimately unsustainable.
“This meeting will either push the EU and US to say it’s worth pursuing another round of talks with Iran, or they are really going to accelerate their options for what they do if the nuclear talks collapse,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
If there is no progress, western diplomats and Iranian analysts say, one option could be to seek a step-by-step agreement to freeze Iran’s nuclear activities in return for economic benefits, including easing sanctions on its oil exports.
“Revival of the nuclear deal is next to impossible with the problems Biden has with Republicans, while Iran has learnt from Trump’s era that it could be a victim of US politics,” said Saeed Laylaz, a reformist analyst. “But a new round of talks may [eventually] lead to some kind of temporary solution.”
Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington