US and Iran inch closer to nuclear agreement but timetable uncertain

Domestic challenges before Iranian elections make imminent breakthrough unlikely, experts tell 'The National'

epa09183071 Qun Wang (C), permanent Representative and Ambassador Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary of the Permanent Mission of the People's Republic of China to the United Nations and other International Organizations in Vienna,  leaves after a JCPOA Joint Commission Iran talks meeting in Vienna, Austria, 07 May 2021. The Joint Commission of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a Deputy Foreign Ministers and Political Directors' level is chaired on behalf of EU High Representative Josep Borrell, by the EEAS Deputy Secretary General Enrique Mora and is attended by China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain and Iran.  EPA/CHRISTIAN BRUNA

A fourth round of indirect negotiations between the US and Iran currently under way in Vienna could narrow the differences on sanctions relief and financial incentives for Tehran, but they are unlikely to produce an imminent return to the 2015 nuclear deal.

When asked on Friday if Tehran is serious about the ongoing talks, US President Joe Biden left the ball in Iran's court.

"Yes, but how serious and what they're prepared to do is a different story. But we're still talking," he said.

US officials leading those negotiations concurred, stressing the decision to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) under a compliance-for-compliance formula is up to Tehran.

“If Iran makes the political decision that it genuinely wants to return to the JCPOA as the JCPOA was negotiated, then it could be done relatively quickly and implementation could be relatively swift. But we don’t know if that – if Iran has made that decision,” a senior US official involved in the talks said on Thursday.

Experts, however, do not see such a return as imminent, with presidential elections due to take place on June 18 and with growing pressure on the Biden administration to avoid granting Tehran a sizeable sanctions relief package.

"The growing domestic concerns in Washington and especially Tehran make an immediate breakthrough less probable," Henry Rome, a senior Iran expert at the Eurasia Group, told The National.

“Iranian negotiators are hamstrung by maximalist demands from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and an increasingly volatile political environment at home.”

This maximalist position was on display in Vienna on Friday.

According to European officials, Washington offered to lift oil and banking sanctions on Iran, but the country's deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, said it was “still not enough”.

"Negotiations will continue until Tehran achieves all its demands,” he said.

Still, Mr Rome argued that having Iran under the negotiations tent in Vienna was far preferable to “entering a blackout” period.

Alex Vatanka, the director of the Iran programme at the Middle East Institute, saw both the US and Iran as playing to their domestic audiences while being in agreement on the need and the benefits of returning to the deal.

"All the signs we are getting from Vienna suggest that the broad framework allowing the United States to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal is falling into place," Mr Vatanka told The National.

“The question is really only about the timing of the announcement of a new agreement.”

For the Biden team, the deliberate downplaying of a return to the deal is “aimed to protect the administration against criticism from anti-Iran hawks in and outside Congress,” Mr Vatanka said.

Senior Republican senators are already warning the administration against granting Iran broad sanctions relief.

“If Biden lifts sanctions on Iran, they will use the money that will generate to build weapons and support terrorists who kill Americans,” Marco Rubio, a senator from Florida, tweeted on Thursday.

But any such relief would take time, Mr Vatanka explained.

“Given that there are some 1,500 sanctions on Iran, the two negotiating teams have to examine each sanction to establish if it is consistent with or inconsistent with the 2015 nuclear deal,” he said.

Former president Donald Trump's administration significantly expanded sanctions on Iran – especially those related to terrorism and human rights breaches.

Those measures have made it harder for the Biden administration to remove them without a change in Iranian behaviour.