US, Iran suggest IAEA agreement could be extended, in sign deal unlikely this month

Extension could put 'time on the clock.'

  • “We hope that we make enough progress so there will be no need for extension of that understanding, but if needed, we would consider at its proper time,” Iran Deputy FM Araghchi said May 7.

  • “It is clear they will not finalize the roadmap by the 21st of May,” ICG Iran project director Ali Vaez said.

  • But if enough progress, extending IAEA deal would "put more time on the clock.”

As a fourth round of international talks on restoring U.S. and Iran full compliance with the Iran nuclear deal got underway in Vienna, signs have emerged that the parties would consider extending a technical agreement between Iran and the UN atomic watchdog agency that is due to expire on May 21. Talk of extending the temporary agreement between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran suggest the parties think it is unlikely they will finalize a possible agreement on a mutual US and Iranian return to the nuclear pact this month, especially as Iran heads to presidential elections next month.

“We hope that we make enough progress so there will be no need for extension of that understanding, but if needed, we would consider at its proper time,” Iran Deputy Foreign Minister and top diplomat at the talks Abbas Araghchi told Japan’s NHK on May 7, referring to an extension of an IAEA/Iran understanding reached on February 21 that was supposed to last for three months.

“I am hopeful that we can reach an understanding so that the IAEA technical agreement that expires with Iran at the end of May can be extended,” Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told a meeting at the Atlantic Council on May 7. “I’m hopeful that we make enough progress that it can stand as the Iranian election gets underway in June.”

“There’s been some progress made, but there’s still a long way to go on this,” Sherman, who served as a top US negotiator at the Iran deal talks during the Obama administration, continued. “I don’t know if we can get to compliance for compliance agreement, and an agreement to continue discussions past that, by the deadline of their election.”

Iran is due to hold presidential elections on June 18, in which its current second term president Hassan Rouhani cannot run again.

Iran’s now hardliner-dominated parliament passed a law in December that called for ending Iran’s voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol and other steps to restrict IAEA access, following the suspected Israeli assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist. Iran since 2019 has been progressively exceeding the limits of the nuclear pact, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to protest the U.S. re-imposition of crippling economic sanctions after then President Trump quit the deal in 2018.

A compromise technical agreement brokered by IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi and Iran in February gave the IAEA enough access for three months, during which, it was hoped, political talks on the new Biden administration possibly returning to the deal and Iran resuming full compliance with it could take place.

But U.S. officials have repeatedly indicated after three previous rounds of indirect talks over the last month that they do not believe the Iranian negotiators have yet been given the political go-ahead from Tehran to make the substantial decisions needed to make rapid progress to finalize an agreement, including on how they would remove more advanced centrifuges not permitted under the 2015 pact.

“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,” a senior State Department official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists on a call May 6, as the US delegation, led by Special Envoy Rob Malley, prepared to return to Vienna. “But we don’t know if… Iran has made that decision. We don’t know if they’ve decided that they’re prepared for a strict mutual return to compliance and whether they’re prepared to do so now.”

“This is ultimately a matter of a political decision that needs to be made in Iran,” the State Department official continued.

Some Iran experts believe Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may not want a major breakthrough in the Vienna talks to potentially boost turnout in Iran’s June polls, which they believe could give an advantage to more moderate candidates.

The Iranian leadership “may not want quick progress before their elections,” an Iran expert who consults with the US team told me last week. Iranian negotiators don’t yet appear to have “enough maneuvering space to be able to explore solutions.”

US President Joe Biden, asked Friday (May 7) if Iran is serious about the nuclear talks in Vienna, said that they were, but that their evident seriousness did not yet mean they were prepared to agree to what was necessary for a mutual return to the JCPOA.

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

Ali Vaez, director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group, said it is clear that a deal on a mutual US and Iranian return to full compliance with the JCPOA will not be finalized by the time the IAEA/Iran agreement expires May 21, in less than two weeks.

“It is clear they will not finalize the roadmap by the 21st of May,” Vaez told me today. “But if there is enough progress that would justify adding more time on the clock, they should consider it.

“One challenge for [IAEA Director General Rafael] Grossi is, how much more time is needed,” Vaez continued. “Is it another month, two months, three months, four….it is unclear. 

“Almost in principle, everyone seems to believe one should not allow the deal to collapse and the IAEA to lose its continuity of knowledge if both sides think they are close to the finish line,” Vaez added.

An Iranian delegation led by Araghchi met with the IAEA’s Grossi in Vienna on May 7 ahead of a meeting of senior diplomats from the remaining parties to the JCPOA that comprise  the Joint Commission overseeing its implementation. They include the European Union, Iran, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia. While the Iran deal parties meet at Vienna’s Grand Hotel, the U.S. delegation, led by Malley, stay nearby at Vienna’s Imperial Hotel. Iran has refused to hold direct talks with the US until it has returned to the deal.

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European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell today suggested he was hoping there would at least be substantial progress at talks this month.

"I am optimistic, there is a window of opportunity that will stay open for a couple of weeks, (until) end of the month," Borrell said at a news conference in Brussels today following a meeting of EU foreign ministers.

"But a lot of work is needed, time is limited and I hope that the negotiations will enter into a phase of nonstop (talks) in Vienna,” he said.

Russia’s top diplomat at the talks still offered up the goal of trying to secure agreement on a US and Iranian return to full compliance with the deal this month.

“I think the February understandings most likely have a good chance to be extended,” Russian ambassador to the IAEA Mikhail Ulyanov told me. “But, as of the moment, our task is different- we need to reach an agreement on restoration of JCPOA by 21 May.”