U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration opened big-power talks this week in Vienna to determine whether steady advances to Tehran’s nuclear program render the landmark Iran nuclear deal “a corpse that cannot be revived,” as one senior U.S. official recently put it to reporters, or if there’s still a chance to salvage the accord.
The United States has cast the eighth and latest round of negotiations as a last chance for achieving a diplomatic settlement of its nuclear dispute with Iran. U.S. officials warn that the window for reviving the 2015 nuclear pact—known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—is nearly shut. Iran has weeks, not months, to strike a deal or curtail its nuclear activities to avoid facing the prospect of stepped-up coercive measures, from additional sanctions to the threat of military action, a senior U.S. official told Foreign Policy.
“Either we reach a deal quickly or they slow down their program,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity given the negotiations’ confidential nature. “If they do neither, [it’s] hard to see how [the] JCPOA survives past that period.”
“We’ve seen modest steps in recent weeks, but the Iranians are not working at a pace required to get a breakthrough in the coming weeks,” the U.S. official added.
Russia and Iran pushed back on the need to establish a fixed deadline for the talks to conclude, with Moscow contending Iran is still far enough away from developing a weapon capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. (Iran claims it has no intention of pursuing nuclear weapons.)
“This sense of urgency is a little bit exaggerated,” said Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s chief nuclear negotiator and ambassador to Vienna. “Yes, it’s urgent, but let’s be prudent; let’s [not] set up artificial deadlines.”
In recent weeks, the Biden administration has been signaling its intention to tighten the economic screws on Iran if the talks, which resumed on Dec. 27, can’t bring Iran back into full compliance with the pact. Andrea Gacki, head of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, led a delegation to the United Arab Emirates as part of an effort to strengthen the enforcement of existing U.S. sanctions, warning banking and petroleum executives in the UAE to abide by the sanctions or face U.S. penalties.
Biden cited restoring the Iran nuclear pact as one of his top foreign-policy priorities, appointing Robert Malley as special envoy for nuclear talks during his first eight days in office. The 2015 deal was the singular diplomatic achievement of the Obama administration, a painstakingly negotiated pact that imposed a complex series of constraints on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
But then-U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, allowing Iran to rebuild and accelerate some of the most sensitive elements of its nuclear program, including the installation of more advanced centrifuges and the production of highly enriched uranium, while restricting international scrutiny of the program.
The day after the seventh round of nuclear talks resumed in Vienna on Nov. 29, Iran began enriching a higher-grade uranium—some 20 percent purity—with a cascade of more advanced IR-6 centrifuges than permitted by the pact. Iran’s breakout time—the amount of time it would take to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb—has shrunk from about 12 months at the time the nuclear pact was concluded to about one month, experts said. It could take Iran another two years to produce a nuclear warhead.
Israel recently pressed Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, to either negotiate more far-reaching constraints on Iran’s nuclear program or tighten the economic noose. In an interview with the New York Times, Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid said the best outcome would be a stronger deal than the JCPOA, which could ensure Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon, and the worst would be a “bad deal” that provides Tehran enough wiggle room to build a nuclear weapons program at some stage in the future. “Second best would be no deal but tightening the sanctions and making sure Iran cannot go forward,” he told the Times.
The Biden administration has focused on simply returning to the original deal, but that effort has been strained by even more than Iran’s nuclear advances. The United States carried out several rounds of talks with the Iranian government of former President Hassan Rouhani, who struck the original agreement with the Obama administration. But the start of a new president, Ebrahim Raisi, has scrambled those calculations. Iran replaced its nuclear negotiating team and appointed a hard-liner, Ali Bagheri Kani, to lead talks. He has backtracked on commitments his predecessors made.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, recently accused Iran’s new negotiating team of staking out “vague, unrealistic, maximalist, and unconstructive positions” on sanctions, reneging on compromises it made during the previous six months of talks.
“We are fully prepared to lift sanctions inconsistent with our JCPOA commitments, which would allow Iran to receive the economic benefits of the deal,” Thomas-Greenfield told the United Nations Security Council on Dec. 14. “And we’re convinced that, if Iran approaches talks in Vienna with urgency and good faith, we can quickly reach and implement an understanding on mutual return [to the JCPOA]. We cannot, however, allow Iran to accelerate its nuclear program and slow-walk its nuclear diplomacy.”
European powers have been losing patience with Iran but said they are reluctant to dump the diplomatic track. In mid-December, representatives from Britain, France, and Germany blamed Iran’s new negotiating team for the new unreasonable demands. “Time is running out,” they said in a joint statement. “Without swift progress, in light of Iran’s fast-forwarding of its nuclear program, the JCPOA will very soon become an empty shell.”
In recent weeks, European diplomats have received instructions from their capitals to be prepared, in the event of a breakdown in talks, for the possible reimposition of sanctions on Iran. The so-called snapback provision of the 2015 nuclear pact permits signatories to reimpose a wide range of U.N. sanctions if they deem Iran is in breach of the agreement.
Since then, Iran has taken a number of steps to ease diplomatic pressure, including meeting a demand by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to provide access to video cameras installed in an Iranian reprocessing facility in Karaj, Iran. That agreement, negotiated with Russia’s help, headed off an immediate collision with the United States, which threatened to seek formal censure of Iran at the IAEA, a move Tehran said would drive it out of the deal for good.
The process “ebbs and flows for us,” one European diplomat said. “There has been slightly better mood music over the last couple of weeks,” citing the Karaj agreement, a bit more flexibility over the scope of nuclear talks, and Iran’s acting “somewhat less troublesome” in the region by refraining from attacks on vessels in the Strait of Hormuz.
“Iran is being as reasonable as one can ever expect the Iranians to be,” the diplomat added. “The alternative is worse. We are still pretty open-eyed about what Iran is up to, but the cost of dropping out and making it all about confrontation is not in anyone’s interest.”
Bagheri Kani, Iran’s chief negotiator, opened talks Monday with representatives of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States—as well as Germany and the European Union, which is serving as facilitator of the talks. The talks could continue through the end of January or early February 2022.
The Iranian delegation is seeking a sweeping rollback of sanctions and demanding assurances from the Biden administration that any agreement it strikes will be honored by future U.S. administrations—an assurance the president may not have the power to grant.
Despite the obstacles, Russia’s Ulyanov said: “Frankly, I’m rather optimistic at this stage. I see no objective reasons for being skeptical.”
“I cannot guarantee that an agreement will be reached, but I believe that chances are very, very high as the main prerequisite for success is already there,” Ulyanov added. “All countries, all participants, including Iran and the United States, look for the restoration of the nuclear deal.”
Ulyanov said China and Russia persuaded Iran to back away from some of its maximalist positions, including its insistence that the talks focus only on sanctions, not the nuclear issue. In the end, he said, the Iranians agreed to begin negotiations on the basis of a draft hammered out by the previous Iranian government this past spring.
Ulyanov said now is not the time to threaten Iran with greater pressure. “Even if they produce a significant amount of nuclear material, so what. It cannot be used without a warhead, and the Iranians do not have warheads.”
Meanwhile, there is a risk of dangerous miscalculations on both sides. Ali Vaez, the Iran expert at the International Crisis Group, said although China and Russia have urged the United States and European powers to give Iran’s negotiating team more time and show greater flexibility, it is “difficult for the West to show flexibility. There is fear on the Western side that Iran is not serious about the talks, that it’s wasting time.”
“From a technological standpoint, the Iranian nuclear program is reaching the point of no return,” Vaez added. If Iran walks away from the deal and “ratchets up its nuclear program, then I think the gloves will come off quickly—in a matter of days. The United States will switch to coercive diplomacy, and we might see the reimposition of U.N. sanctions and, shortly after, the specter of war.”