Talks in Vienna over a resurrection of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal resumed on Tuesday, but while some officials have voiced cautious optimism that a deal may be in sight, the US has warned that time is running out.
The eighth round of EU-convened negotiations between China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the UK and, indirectly, the US, paused last month as envoys returned to their capitals for consultations.
Both Iran and the US say there have been signs of progress, but each side has put the onus on the other to deliver. In a conciliatory move last week, the US announced it was waiving sanctions on Iran’s civil nuclear programme.
Former US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew his country from the 2015 deal in 2018 and reimposed heavy sanctions on Iran, after which Tehran stepped up its nuclear activities.
In what was interpreted as a gesture to the final phase of talks, Washington earlier this week restored sanctions waivers for Iran that would allow international nuclear co-operation projects.
It remains to be seen if that will be enough to shift Iran on its position that all sanctions must go. Mark Fitzpatrick, an associate fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and former acting deputy assistant secretary for non-proliferation at the US State Department, said the issue of all the Trump-era sanctions being removed remains a sticking point.
“I see little sign that Iran is ready to make the kind of compromises that would be necessary for a deal. It will need to adjust its demands for 'all' Trump-era sanctions to be removed, for there to be guarantees no future president would again abandon the deal, and for lifting of US sanctions to be verified before Iran returns to the deal,” he told The National.
The European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Tuesday that: "There is a US offer, there is a counter-offer. I don't if know it's going to be one week, two weeks, three weeks, but certainly we are in the last steps of the negotiation."
Mr Borrell, who was speaking during a visit to Washington, said reaching agreement on the lifting of sanctions and the rollback of Iran's nuclear activities was "the most important problem" but that he was hopeful of a breakthrough "because both sides have been showing willingness."
The 2015 deal gave Iran sanctions relief in return for curbs on its nuclear programme, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes.
A key issue is that some of the sanctions imposed by Mr Trump are related to terrorism and human rights, not Iran's nuclear programme.
The administration of Joe Biden, Mr Trump’s successor, has signalled that it wants a return to the deal, but says that time is running out.
Sanam Vakil, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, wrote last month that “while Iran has demanded that all Trump-era sanctions are lifted” the Biden administration is unlikely to lift non-nuclear sanctions.
“If Iran does not make the necessary compromises in the next couple of weeks, then I think the US will decide there is no point in prolonging the negotiations and will instead look to other means to try to restrict Iran's enrichment capabilities," said Mr Fitzpatrick.
“If, however, Iran does show readiness to compromise and a deal is 'nearly there,' then the deadline for finishing the talks will be more elastic, and could last beyond two weeks,” he added.
Washington has sought direct negotiations with Tehran in the current stretch, but said talks remain indirect at Iran's request.
“A deal that addresses all sides' core concerns is in sight, but if it is not reached in the coming weeks, Iran's ongoing nuclear advances will make it impossible for us to return [to the accord]", a US State Department spokesman said on Monday.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said that answers that “the US brings … to Vienna will determine when we can reach an agreement”.
“We have made significant progress in various areas of the Vienna negotiations,” Mr Khatibzadeh said. The areas include guarantees sought by Iran that the US would not breach the deal once again, he said.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz described it as “the decisive moment” for the talks.
“We gave them a clear message that now this is the time for decisions and for progress, and not for prolonging the process,” he told The Washington Post. “We hope that they will use the chance.”
“We are five minutes away from the finish line,” Russian negotiator Mikhail Ulyanov said in an interview with Russian newspaper Kommersant.
“A draft of the final document has been crafted. There are several points there that need more work, but that document is already on the table.”
Twenty-Six US Senators, including Ted Cruz, have written to Mr Biden and demanded that their voices be heard at the Vienna negotiations. Mr Cruz and other Republican Senators criticised the original 2015 deal for not being tough enough on Iran.