Written by Steven Erlanger
In Vienna on Tuesday, 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.
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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 realize.
What are the talks about?
The Vienna talks are intended to create a road map for a synchronized 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 criticized as too weak by many in 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 U.S. sanctions that had been lifted under the deal’s terms. The U.S. 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 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.
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 revitalize 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 synchronized return to compliance, the expectation is that officials of Iran and the United States will meet to finalize the details.
What is the prospect for success?
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.