Momentum seen at Iran deal talks in Vienna (Updated)

Iran negotiator announces meetings will resume in Vienna next week. The U.S. delegation expected to return to Washington on Friday.

International talks underway in Vienna this week on how the United States and Iran would return to full compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal seemed to gather pace today as a top Iran negotiator said consultations would resume there next week.

Update (6:40PM): The U.S. delegation, led by Iran envoy Rob Malley, is expected to return to Washington on Friday, an Iran expert who consulted with them said this evening. Progress was good, but the next steps are uncertain, he said.

“Tomorrow, we’ll have a wrap up and assessment of expert talks in a Joint Commission meeting,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told Iranian media in Vienna today (April 8), Iranian journalists Abas Aslani and Sara Massoumi reported. “Then we’ll have a break for some days and to let delegations to go to their capitals to have further consultations. We’ll come to Vienna next week to continue the talks.”

“We expect the talks may resume in the coming days, potentially next week,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told journalists at the State Department today, describing the discussions held this week as “constructive…business-like; it has been a step forward.”

But, Price cautioned against allowing “expectations to outpace where we are.”

Nuclear and sanctions experts from the United States, Iran, and the five remaining parties to the pact, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia--have formed two working groups to map out comprehensive lists of what sanctions the United States would need to lift to return to the pact, and what nuclear activities Iran would need to roll back to return to full compliance. Iran has been gradually exceeding the deal’s limits since 2019 to protest crippling economic sanctions the U.S. imposed after then-President Donald Trump quit the deal in 2018.

The European Union said today the parties would review the progress made this week by the expert working groups at a previously announced formal session of the Joint Commission tomorrow.

The State Department said yesterday that the United States would be prepared to lift those sanctions that are inconsistent with the pact if Iran returns to the deal’s limits.

“We are prepared to take the steps necessary to return to compliance with the JCPOA, including by lifting sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA,” the State Department’s Price told journalists at the State Department press briefing yesterday (April 7). “I am not in a position here to give you chapter and verse on what those might be.”

The Biden administration’s more explicit willingness to consider sanctions relief appears to have given the diplomatic process momentum, said Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a former State Department official.

“I think the result [of the Vienna meetings] is better than anticipated, largely because the U.S. has changed strategy,” Nasr told me by phone today. “It put the lifting of sanctions on the table, which it had not done previously.”

Previously, the Biden administration had been trying to devise a more most modest confidence-building proposal as a first step to resume intensive diplomacy on how both sides would return to the deal. Such a proposal for mutual gestures, (which a U.S. official told me last week had initially been an Iranian request), might involve, for instance, that the United States might let Iran access some of its foreign bank reserves in South Korea to buy covid vaccine in exchange for Iran suspending 20% enrichment.

The previous ideas had involved “Iran’s own money being exchanged for some Iranian concessions,” Nasr said. “But it had not agreed to the lifting of sanctions. So I think that [the fact that it now has] has created momentum.”

The issue of the sequencing of steps for a mutual U.S. and Iranian return to full compliance with the pact is particularly tricky, and will likely require artful diplomacy to meet the political requirements of both Tehran and Washington.

“If this is going to work, the only way forward is if both sides take steps simultaneously to end up together at the same destination on the same date,” Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, told me. 

“The talks so far…are doing what we envisioned they would do,” the State Department’s Price said yesterday. “They are affording us a better understanding of Iran’s thinking, and we hope that in turn, Tehran will leave this round of talks with a better understanding of what we might be prepared to do.”

Iran to date has refused to hold direct talks with the U.S., and the United States, because it has not yet formally rejoined the JCPOA, is no longer a member of the Joint Commission, the body that officially convened the Vienna talks this week. So the U.S. delegation, led by Iran envoy Rob Malley, is working out of Vienna’s Imperial Hotel. While the Iranian delegation, led by Araghchi, is staying at Vienna’s Intercontinental Hotel. And the Joint Commission is convening at Vienna’s Grand Hotel.

The US diplomat stressed last week that direct talks with the Iranians would make the process more efficient and less prone to misunderstanding.

“It would be infinitely easier if we could sit down at the same table,” the US official said.

There is some sense of urgency to see if a mutual return to the deal can be reached sooner than later because Iran holds presidential elections in June in which Iran’s second term president Hassan Rouhani cannot run again. World powers would like to lock Iran into the deal’s limits before it loses the Iranian negotiating team that negotiated the accord, and they could likely face a lengthy political transition period in which Iran’s nuclear program continues to expand.

“Once their presidential campaign begins,…it could be many months in which it would be very difficult to have any progress,” the U.S. official told me.

“We could go at a good pace,” he said. “It could go faster if we sit down with them, and have significantly more effective discussions.”

Chief US negotiator Malley, in addition to his consultations with the Europeans, Chinese and Russians, held bilateral meetings this week with the International Atomic Energy Agency director general Rafael Grossi and with the Austrian Foreign Minister. He is likely to return to Washington this weekend before resuming discussions in Vienna next week, Price said.

Price, at the briefings this week, seemed to take pains to describe the discussions in Vienna as “technical” and not strategic. Since the Iranians reject the idea of “negotiating” with Washington, at this stage, this language seemed deliberately chosen to try to see if the Iranians might agree to direct “technical talks” with the United States.

“These talks are indirect, and as a result, the mechanics of them can be cumbersome,” Price said yesterday. “It will be hard because these are very technical and complex issues. Again, these are not strategic talks, …because the strategy…is clear. It is what we have termed compliance for compliance. These talks, ongoing in Vienna, are about how we might get there.”

Such a diplomatic rhetorical maneuver will also likely be required to work out not just the sequencing of a return for return deal, but also the language of how the sequencing is described.

“There seems to be an understanding now by both the Biden administration and the Iranians that neither side is going to go first,” Suzanne DiMaggio, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Board Chair of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told journalists on an experts call on Monday. “It may seem like semantics,…but I think what we have is at least the germ of a process whereby both sides can say, we’re moving simultaneously. Both sides can save a little face and put together the roadmap going forward.”