After three weeks of talks, discussions on the Iran nuclear deal are essentially back to where they were at the beginning of summer.
Yet, diplomats said, even that reflects progress, coming after five months in which negotiations were on pause following the election in June of Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline conservative, as president of Iran.
“We have now a text that with some minor exceptions is a common ground for negotiations,” said Enrique Mora, the senior EU official coordinating the talks.
Iran resumed negotiations with the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China on November 29, with the EU acting as coordinator of the talks. Since then, talks have been perpetually close to collapsing, with Iran’s new regime making fresh demands and restricting access to its nuclear facilities.
Now, diplomats said, they’ve agreed to work off the text from before the election, with slight amendments to reflect the latest Iranian proposals.
“Modest progress,” a senior U.S. State Department official said. “We now have a common understanding of what the text will be that will serve as the basis of negotiations on nuclear issues.”
It is in the interest of all sides to keep the talks alive, even with a weak heartbeat. European countries have long championed the deal, Iran’s economy is suffering under heavy sanctions and the U.S. wants to show it is making every diplomatic effort.
Still, officials said that negotiations needed to pick up if they were to be successful, as the fast pace of Iran’s nuclear advances is eroding the potential benefits of a deal.
“This only takes us back nearer to where the talks stood in June,” senior European diplomats cautioned in a joint briefing.
The senior State Department official echoed the sentiment. What is on the table now, the official said, is “an agenda of issues to be examined, not a set of solutions to be accepted.”
Iran and the U.S. are not holding direct negotiations, with Tehran still smarting over former U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal — known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — in 2018. Instead, they rely on European diplomats to act as go-betweens.
When Iran returned to the table in November, it was unwilling to resume negotiations on the basis of texts that had been negotiated by the previous Iranian administration earlier in the year, changing almost 90 percent of what had been agreed to in June, Western officials said.
European and U.S. negotiators considered this approach unacceptable and said it had prevented them from getting “down to real negotiations.”
Iran’s new negotiating team under Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani also brought new demands to the table. According to a senior Western diplomat, Iran wants, among other things, broader access to carbon fiber, as previously reported by the Wall Street Journal. The material is commonly used in airplanes and sporting equipment, but it can also be used to produce centrifuge rotors that are used to enrich uranium.
Iran also demands that all sanctions be removed, including those that had been imposed by Trump under the so-called maximum pressure campaign.
Western officials said that the U.S. had put a good offer on the table and that it was up to Iran to accept it. But the issue of sanctions lifting has not been the main focus during this seventh round of talks, according to a senior state department official. “We haven’t gotten to that point yet.”
Separately, a collapse of the nuclear talks was averted on Wednesday after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reached a Russia-brokered agreement with Iran on allowing international inspectors to replace cameras at a workshop in Karaj, a city west of Tehran, where parts for centrifuges are produced.
By reaching the agreement, Iran avoided a censure resolution the U.S. had threatened to present to the IAEA Board of Governors before the end of the year. Iran had said that it would walk away from the nuclear negotiations in such an event.
The cameras needed to be replaced because one of the four IAEA cameras was destroyed in June in what Iran calls an act of sabotage that it blames on Israel. The other three cameras were removed by Iran and they have also kept their memory cards, saying that they will only return them once an agreement at the nuclear talks is reached and sanctions are lifted.
IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi on Friday showed a sample camera, similar to the ones that will be reinstalled at the Karaj assembly plant, to a packed room of international journalists. In an apparent riposte to Iranian claims that the cameras can be hacked, Grossi explained that the cameras cannot be tampered with as they are under IAEA seal and not connected to a computer.
Grossi also said that his inspectors “have ways” to reconstruct the gap in monitoring since the cameras were removed in June and their reinstallations in a few days from now. He said that IAEA inspectors will be able to “put the jigsaw puzzle back together.”
The stakes in the talks are high — their failure could lead to instability in the Middle East and an arms race in the region. Military action has also not been ruled out. Time is also running out, given the fast advances in Iran’s nuclear program.
“We are rapidly reaching the end of the road for this negotiation,” senior European diplomats concluded.
Ali Bagheri Kani, Iran’s chief negotiator, framed it differently: “The pace of reaching an agreement depends on the will of the other side. If they accept Iran’s logical views and positions, the new round of the talks can be the last round and we can reach an agreement as soon as possible.”
The eighth round of talks will begin in Vienna after a break, most likely before the end of the year.