September 24, 2023

A woman walks past a mural painted on the wall of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, on May 9, 2018.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

WASHINGTON – The fragile discussions on the 2015 revival of Iran’s nuclear deal were about two weeks away from a conclusion in June, but several complex issues remain unresolved, according to a senior German government official who attended the talks.

Earlier this year, the signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) began the first of six full-day negotiations in several hotels across Vienna.

“In March it was our determination and that of our American friends to get this done quickly. It took longer than we thought. But I think we could have done it in June, another two weeks of serious negotiations and political will.” said a senior German government official.

Until then, the progress had been “quite remarkable,” said the official.

“As always in negotiations like this, the most complicated points have been left to the end and we are not resolved, but I would say we started with a blank sheet of paper and by June we had four different texts and something” like 1,520 pages of the agreement “explained the officer.

The officer asked for anonymity in order to be able to discuss the negotiations openly.

The break follows the election of the new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who will succeed Hassan Rouhani this week.

The 2015 JCPOA, partly brokered by the Obama administration, lifted sanctions on Iran, which crippled its economy and roughly halved its oil exports. In addition to the USA, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia and China were also signatories to the agreement.

Iran agreed to dismantle part of its nuclear program and open its facilities to wider international inspections in exchange for billions of dollars in sanction relief.

In 2018, then-President Donald Trump kept a campaign promise and unilaterally pulled the United States out of the JCPOA, calling it the “worst deal ever”. Trump has also reintroduced the previously lifted sanctions against Tehran. After Washington pulled out of the groundbreaking nuclear deal, other signatories to the pact “fought to keep the deal alive.

The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign hampered Iran’s already strained economy and curbed oil exports, boiling tensions between Tehran and Washington.

The Biden government has since sought a return to the deal and recently completed a sixth round of negotiations in Vienna.

Last month, a senior official in the Biden administration told reporters, on condition of anonymity, that the US negotiating team had failed to reach an agreement after the six rounds of talks. The official added that the US would enter the seventh round of talks, also known as P5 + 1, with the other signatories.

When pressing for a schedule, the officer declined to provide details of the schedule for the resumption of negotiations.

“This process cannot go on indefinitely”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a press conference with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah at the State Department in Kuwait City on July 29, 2021.

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Last week, Foreign Minister Antony Blinken expressed concern about the nearly two-month standstill in talks.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely,” said Blinken on July 29 at a press conference in Kuwait.

“At some point, if Iran continues its nuclear program activities, a return to the JCPOA will not fully restore the gains made by the JCPOA,” said the senior US diplomat, adding, “The ball remains in Iran.”

When asked if Raisi’s new government had spoken to the negotiating teams, the German official said there was still no communication.

“I think there is enough evidence that there is a real debate in the Iranian system about how to proceed with these negotiations,” said the German official, downplaying fears that Raisi would withdraw from the talks altogether.

Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi gestures after casting his vote in the presidential election at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, June 18, 2021.

Majid Asgaripour | WANA News Agency | Reuters

Raisi said in a televised address on Tuesday that he would lift the “tyrannical US sanctions” and improve living conditions for Iranians.

In June, Raisi ruled out a meeting with Biden after he was sworn in on Thursday, downplaying the White House by saying that the US does not currently have diplomatic relations with Iran.

Raisi, who is under personal US sanctions on allegations of human rights violations, is expected to take a tough line during the talks in Vienna.

“What we think the next steps are is they [Iranians] will return to Vienna after the formation of the government. So that brings us in mid-August and then we’ll meet and see what kind of negotiating positions they have, “said the German official.

“What remained controversial”

While Iran and the Western powers are preparing for a possible seventh round of talks, the German official said the negotiations had been “very straightforward” so far.

“We had a pretty good understanding with the Iranians of how re-entry into the JCPOA would work. I do not want to underplay what remained controversial, however, it was substantial,” said the official.

When asked about the key sticking points, the official said that Iranians often reiterate concerns that the United States will pull out with the start of a new government.

“They want to guarantee that there will be no Trump 2.0 as long as they fully adhere to the fact that the Americans do not simply get out of the agreement again,” said the German official.

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Another point of conflict is the scope of sanctions easing for Tehran, in which Iranian representatives have called for further easing.

“We, along with our American friends, say that sanctions linked to the JCPOA must be lifted,” the official said, adding that penalties for human rights violations would remain intact. “There are other issues that we need to address in follow-up talks that the Iranians do not want to commit to,” added the person.

Since Trump’s decision to leave the deal, Tehran has increased its uranium enrichment and storage levels well beyond the limits of the deal. In addition, the Western powers are concerned about the ambitious progress made by Iran in research and development in the nuclear field.

“There comes a point where there is no JCPOA to return to if Iran continues its enrichment and research and development activities,” the person said. “We’re not there yet, but everyone should be aware of this prospect.”