In Vienna on Tuesday (local time), the signers of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal will come together with what would appear to be a simple task. They want to restore compliance with an agreement that put strict controls on Iran's nuclear enrichment, to ensure that it cannot build a nuclear weapon, in return for the lifting of punishing economic sanctions.
Both Iran and the United States insist that they want to return to the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. But nothing about the meeting will be simple.
President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the accord in May 2018, calling it "the worst deal ever negotiated,'' and restored and then enhanced harsh economic sanctions against Iran, trying to force it to renegotiate.
Iran responded in part by enriching uranium significantly beyond the limits in the agreement, building more advanced centrifuges, and acting more aggressively in support of allies in the Middle East, like Hezbollah, Hamas, Shia militias in Iraq and the Syrian government of Bashar Assad.
So returning to a deal made six years ago will likely be harder than many people realise.
What are the talks about?
The Vienna talks are intended to create a road map for a synchronised return of both Iran and the United States to compliance with the 2015 deal. It has been at risk of collapse since Trump repudiated American participation.
The accord was the outcome of years of negotiations with Iran. Under the chairmanship of the European Union, Britain, France and Germany made the first overtures to Iran, joined by the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: Russia, China and the United States.
But it was not until the United States started secret talks with Iran under President Barack Obama and agreed that Iran could enrich uranium, though under safeguards, that a breakthrough occurred. Even then, the deal was widely criticised as too weak by many in the US Congress and by Israel, which saw Iran's possible reach for a nuclear weapon — an aspiration always denied by Iran — as an existential threat.
The Europeans tried to keep the deal alive, but proved unable to provide Iran the economic benefits it was due after Trump restored US sanctions that had been lifted under the deal's terms. The US sanctions, based on the global power of the dollar and the American banking system, kept European and other companies from doing business with Iran, and Trump intensified the pressure by adding many more sanctions.
Iran responded in various ways, including attacks on shipping and on American allies in Iraq, but more important by restarting uranium enrichment at a higher level and with centrifuges banned under the deal. The estimated time it would take Iran to make enough enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon has now shrunk from a year, which was what the deal wanted to preserve, to just a few months. Iran is also making uranium metal necessary for a warhead, also banned under the deal, and is aggressively supporting allies in the Middle East, including many the West regards as terrorist groups.
In a further pressure tactic, Iran has interpreted the inspection requirements of the deal narrowly, and has declined to answer questions from the International Atomic Energy Agency about radioactive particles that inspectors found at sites that have never been declared by Tehran as part of the nuclear programme. Iran agreed in late February to keep recording information on its inspection equipment for three months, but without granting IAEA access. If economic sanctions are not lifted in that time, Iran says, the information will be deleted, which would leave the world in the dark about key parts of the nuclear programme.
Iran insists it can return to compliance with the deal quickly, but wants the United States to do so first. The Biden administration says it wants Iran to go first.
What are the obstacles?
Trust is one big problem. The Iranian regime was established by a revolution more than four decades ago that replaced the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran with a complicated government overseen by clerics and the strong hand of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The ayatollah only reluctantly agreed to the 2015 deal with the "Great Satan" of America. After Trump pulled out, Khamenei's mistrust only deepened.
Trump also imposed many economic sanctions on Iran beyond those originally lifted by the deal, trying "maximum pressure" to force Iran to negotiate much more stringent terms. Iranian officials now say as many as 1,600 U.S. sanctions must be lifted, about half of them imposed by Trump. Some are aimed at terrorism and human rights violations, not nuclear issues. Lifting some of them would create opposition in Congress.
Many in Washington, let alone in Israel and Europe, also disbelieve Iran's assertions that it has never pursued a nuclear weapon and would never do so.
Further complicating restoration of the accord are its "sunset" clauses, or time limits, that would allow Iran to resume certain nuclear enrichment activities. The Biden administration wants further negotiations with Iran to extend those time limits as well as put limits on Iran's missile programme and other activities.
Iran says it simply wants the United States to return to the deal it left, including the lifting of sanctions, before it will return, too. It has so far rejected any further talks.
Even under the Islamic regime, Iran has politics, too. There are presidential elections in June, with candidates approved by the clerics. President Hassan Rouhani, who cannot run for another term, and the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, are considered relatively moderate and negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal. But powerful forces in Iran opposed the deal, including Iran's Revolutionary Guard. The moderates hope that quick progress on lifting economic sanctions will help them in the presidential elections; the hard-liners are expected to oppose any quick deal in Vienna that might benefit the moderates.
Iran has lived with tough Trump sanctions for three years now and survived popular discontent and even protests, and hard-liners will argue that another six months are not likely to matter.
How will the talks be structured?
The meeting of senior diplomats is formally a session of the Joint Commission of the deal, called by the European Union as chairman. Since the United States left the accord, its representatives will not be in the room, but somewhere nearby. Diplomats from Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran will meet, with an EU chair, and start to discuss how to revitalise the accord.
Iran refuses to meet face-to-face with American diplomats. So the Europeans suggest that they will either meet the Americans with proposals, or that the Iranians will leave the room before the Americans enter. This process of indirect talks could take time.
But European diplomats say that after a few days, the job will be left in Vienna to working groups on the complicated political and technical issues. If a rough agreement can be reached on a synchronised return to compliance, the expectation is that officials of Iran and the United States will meet to finalise the details.
The talks may take a long time, and some in Washington hope at least for an agreement in principle in the next few months that would bind any new Iranian government after the June elections.
But some European diplomats fear that too much time has already elapsed, and that the deal is effectively dead, and will essentially serve as a reference point for what may be a fundamentally new negotiation.
So the timeline is unclear, as is the prospect for success.
Written by: Steven Erlanger
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