After fifteen months of trashing the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, the Trump administration formally withdrew from the accord on May 15, 2018, and immediately began to impose new sanctions on Iran to signal its displeasure with Tehran and to make it more difficult for a future U.S. administration to return to the deal. Iran waited months before beginning to selectively stop complying with its obligations under the accord. The Biden administration came into office nineteen months ago with a goal of negotiating to bring both Iran and the U.S. back into compliance. Iran began ramping up its nuclear activities as leverage in renewed negotiations with the U.S. and the other adherents to the nuclear deal (the EU3, Russia, and China). Negotiations, through proximity talks in Vienna, began in April 2021. As the talks have dragged on, Washington stated that at a certain point it would no longer be willing to return to the agreement given Iranian nuclear activities that bring it much closer to a nuclear weapons capability.
Over the past several weeks, the lead EU negotiator has declared that the draft delivered to both Tehran and Washington was the final one and that sides had to take or leave it. The Biden administration indicated that it was happy with the draft. Two weeks ago, Iran returned the draft to the EU with comments and concerns. Washington responded to these comments last Monday. There has been speculation and leaks to the press as to the remaining disagreements, but there has been little to no formal statements by the U.S., Iran, or the EU as to their substance in these last exchanges. On Sunday, a U.S. State Department spokesperson told the press that “We’ve closed some gaps, but some still remain.” In addition, President Biden spoke over the weekend with the leaders of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, the other Western allies party to the nuclear accord. While the readout was sparse, and other issues such as Ukraine and Iran’s other non-nuclear activities were discussed, a summit conversation at this level about the negotiations is a strong signal that the negotiation is in its very final stages with success or failure still possibilities.
Disagreements remain. Iran is looking for guarantees about the size of sanctions relief, something that cannot be guaranteed because much depends on the will of the private sector to engage with Iran. Iran also wants guarantees against swift withdrawal by a future American administration – something almost impossible to do given the nature of the American political system. A new issue is Tehran’s desire for an ongoing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation into past Iranian nuclear-weapon related activities to be ended, and Iran cleared, before the JCPOA is restarted. The U.S. and EU3 want the IAEA to be able to conduct and conclude its investigation without political pressure because the IAEA is the independent agency that will monitor Iran’s compliance if the JCPOA is brought back to life. A final issue has been Iran’s desire to have the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp removed from the U.S. terrorist list, something that President Biden indicated in April would not happen. Information about an Iranian-sponsored plot against former U.S. National Security advisor John Bolton and the recent attack on author Salman Rushdie make even token U.S. concessions regarding Iran’s terrorism activities politically impossible in Washington. Iran appears to have backed down on the IRGC demand. The negotiations are close to an end, and success or failure remain possibilities. Final talks will take place with fewer and fewer leaks and obvious indicators of outcome until it is made public.