US, Iran signal unlikely to finalize deal in next round

The US and Iran are not likely to overcome remaining gaps to finalize agreement on a mutual return to the nuclear pact at the next round of Vienna talks

Iran's ambassador to the IAEA Kazem Gharibabadi leaves a meeting of the Joint Commission in Vienna on June 2. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

The United States and Iran are unlikely to overcome remaining gaps in their positions to finalize an agreement on mutually returning to full compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal at the next round of international talks set to get underway in Vienna this weekend, U.S. officials and experts they consult with said.

Iranian demands on sanctions relief remain unrealistic, from the US perspective, a U.S. official indicated. And a plan for how to sequence steps has also not progressed very much.

“They are still far from bridging the remaining gaps,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group, told me Tuesday. “Doing so requires both sides to demonstrate more flexibility.”

“It is unlikely that they could finalize a deal in the next round,” Vaez continued. “There is still a long distance to travel on sequencing and verification as well.”

"I think there's been a lot of progress made, but out of my own experience, until the last detail is nailed down, and I mean nailed down, we will not know if we have an agreement," Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who served as a top Iran nuclear deal negotiator during the Obama administration, said at a German Marshall Fund event today.

"This is complicated, of course, by the Iranian presidential election, which is happening in just a few days,” Sherman said.

Iran holds presidential elections on June 18. Conservative Iranian judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi is widely expected to win, after the Guardian Council disqualified most other viable candidates. Turnout is expected to be low, Iranian observers said, due to widespread Iranian voter apathy and hopelessness amid economic hardships exacerbated by crippling US economic sanctions imposed after then President Trump quit the nuclear deal in 2018. Iran since 2019 has been progressively exceeding nuclear limits it had been observing in the pact, to protest the US reneging on the deal and reimposing sanctions.

The United States recognizes the urgency of the issue, but is not going to adjust its demands to try to secure agreement before Iranian presidential elections on June 18, the State Department said today.

“We do recognize that this is a challenge that we need to treat and that we have treated with a good deal of urgency,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told journalists at a press briefing today (June 9).

But, Price continued, “that is not dictated by any sort of electoral calendar. It’s not dictated by anything other than the fact that the longer Iran remains free from the most stringent verification and monitoring regime ever negotiated, the more potentially dangerous Iran’s nuclear program could become.”

“I think there’s just about every expectation there will be subsequent rounds beyond that,” Price said at the State Department briefing June 3 regarding the sixth round of Vienna talks set to get underway Saturday.

Iran’s top envoy in Vienna suggested Iran is still deeply wary of US assurances after then President Trump quit the pact, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“Iran engaged seriously in JCPOA negotiations,” Iran’s Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Kazem Gharibabadi tweeted today. “It's important that the outcome secures enough assurances that all sanctions are lifted in a verifiable manner and we do not face, once again, the crisis situation in which the US withdraws from the deal or abuse mechanisms therein.”

“It is yet to be observed whether the US is serious enough and ready to abandon its addiction to use sanctions, respect international law, implement its sanctions lifting commitments in full…and take all necessary difficult decisions that this might entail,” Gharibabadi continued.

The Crisis Group’s Vaez said both sides need to show more flexibility.

“It is normal that neither side reveals its bottom line until the very end,” Vaez said. “But both sides are facing serious political challenges back home. Neither Iran nor the US can sell a ‘less for more’ arrangement back home.”

“But with political will, they might be able to [finalize a deal] before June 24th,” Vaez added. “If not, I hope they'd achieve that objective before power changes hands in Iran,” in August.

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