The United States announced that it has resumed indirect negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons program. While Reuters reports that the first week of talks in Vienna, Austria closed on a positive note, there is still much work to be done to establish a peaceful consensus.
These negotiations are the first concrete steps that have been taken by the Biden administration to rejoin the agreement known as Iran Nuclear Deal – officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While the Iranian delegation still refuses to hold direct talks with the United States, European officials are performing shuttle diplomacy between the two states by relaying communications from official multilateral JCPOA talks, which are being held in one hotel, to the United States, which is working in another hotel nearby.
The talks, which are still in their early stages, have been welcomed by all JCPOA signatories, including Iran and the now-withdrawn United States, as a needed means of de-escalating tensions. The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the agreement in 2018 emboldened Iran to break the limits set on its nuclear program by the JCPOA despite the other states involved – China, Russia, and the European Union – all remaining compliant. Iran justified these infractions as retaliatory countermeasures in response to the large-scale sanction regime imposed on it by the U.S. Thus, as the New York Times explains, Tehran’s goal through the new talks is the complete removal of all American sanctions, while Washington seeks the return of Iranian compliance to the previously-negotiated limits of the JCPOA.
Both sides’ demands, however, will inevitably lead to some tension. The official positions of both the United States and Iran are that neither will shift unless the other acts first.
For Iran, this would mean limiting the enrichment percentages of its uranium, which recently reached as high as 20 percent in violation of the JCPOA-imposed limits, according to the Associated Press. Compliance would also mean that Iran would have to allow international inspectors from the United Nations-affiliated International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into their nuclear facilities. In March 2021, Iran enacted a prohibition on all IAEA inspections of its facilities, leaving the world in the dark about its nuclear capabilities. This prohibition startled the remaining JCPOA members and led to an agreement where Iran would keep all the footage from the inspection cameras in its nuclear facilities for up to three months and handing it over to the IAEA if American sanctions are lifted. The United States’ official position demands that these actions, and a myriad of others, must stop before it agrees to lift sanctions and rejoin the JCPOA.
For the United States, meeting Iran’s demands would involve the lifting of a complex and large-scale sanction regime against the Iranian state, its nationals, and its corporations. The Washington Post details how the Trump administration layered new sanctions unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program on top of those related to the JCPOA to punish other Iranian international transgressions. These sanctions were justified on a range of issues, including alleged support for terrorism to alleged human rights violations. Since the Trump administration often made existing JCPOA-related sanctions more severe instead of issuing new ones to punish additional transgressions, the process of completely removing all sanctions will be complex, if not impossible. Given the accusations of terrorism associated with these layered sanctions, it is unlikely that the Biden administration will be able to find broad support on either side of the aisle to remove many of them.
According to Politico, this current bout of diplomacy is aimed at creating a precise and specific plan on how both the United States and Iran will return to compliance with the JCPOA. Whether these talks will produce their desired result, however, is still yet to be determined.