U.S. says prepared to work out Iran deal return before elections, but doesn’t control pace

"Our goal now is to see whether we can agree…what coming back into compliance” would look like, senior U.S. administration official said.

  • Senior U.S. official presses for direct talks: “It would be infinitely easier if we could sit down at same table.”

  • But the Iranians to date have indicated they are “not prepared to sit with us at any level,” he said.

  • “Our goal now is to see whether we can agree…what coming back into compliance would look like….We need some level of mutual understanding of where we are going and how to get there.”

The United States is seeking to define with Iran what coming back into compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal would entail, even as Iran to date has rejected the prospect of direct talks with the U.S., and Iranian decision-making is becoming more factionalized ahead of its June presidential elections, making the process more difficult, a senior US administration official said today.

“Our goal now is to see whether we can agree…what coming back into compliance would look like,” the senior U.S. official, speaking to me not for attribution, said today.

“We are prepared to get things done before the elections,” the American official also said, referring to Iran’s June presidential polls, in which Iran’s second term President Hassan Rouhani cannot run again. “But we can’t force the pace.”

“Even though Iran keeps saying …‘you left, you go back in,’ it is harder than that,” the American official said, referring to then President Trump in 2018 withdrawing the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). “We need some level of mutual understanding of where we are going and how to get there.”

“It would be infinitely easier if we could sit down at the same table,” the US official said. “They don’t want that. So we have to do it indirectly. And that is going to make it more difficult and more prone to misunderstanding.”

“I would offer, if Iran is serious about wanting to come back to the JCPOA and see us back in the JCPOA, …there are two [maximalist] options that ought to be ruled out: that Iran does everything first, then the US lifts sanctions; and that the U.S. does everything first, then Iran [reverses the breaches of its JCPOA commitments],” the US official continued. “Both of those should be ruled out as not realistic. In between, there could be pragmatic sequencing. If they are pragmatic, …and agree …then we should be able to get there.”

The Biden administration has passed numerous ideas back and forth via the Europeans to the Iranians on mutual confidence-building gestures the two sides could take. But without direct contacts, “it becomes self-defeating,” the US official said, describing the predicament of ‘negotiating with ourselves.’

According to the U.S. official, the Iranians had initially proposed the idea of a reciprocal set of steps after they rejected a European Union offer in February to host an informal meeting of the remaining parties to the Iran nuclear deal—Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran--as well as the United States, which the Biden administration said it would be prepared to attend.

But now it seems they want a roadmap of what full compliance would look like.

“We were on the track of these initial gestures at Iran’s request,” the U.S. official said. “Iran’s position, after they rejected the request for an informal meeting, was they need a reciprocal set of steps. Now they seem to have switched to the view of let’s see if we can define what full compliance would be.”

Impeding efforts to get more productive talks underway are deep Iranian mistrust of the United States as well as pre-elections internal wrangling, the official observed. He suggested Iranian mistrust was heightened both by its experience of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” economic sanctions campaign even while Iran strictly complied with the nuclear pact until 2019, and more recently because Iran anticipated quicker movement by President Biden which did not come.

“They are very suspicious,” the U.S. official said. In addition, “as they approach the end of the Rouhani administration and new elections, internal wrangling is getting more intense.”

Rouhani this month blasted domestic political rivals for depriving Iranians of the potential economic relief that could come with a U.S. return to the pact and lifting of nuclear-related sanctions.

“It is a great betrayal of the Iranian nation if any faction or person delays the end of the sanctions even for one hour,” Rouhani said March 17. “The small minority that is obstructing this path needs to stop its destructive act.”

An Iranian official suggested Tuesday (March 30) that the United States knows what it has to do to salvage the nuclear pact, and rejected the observation that the United States was trying to show flexibility in its approach.

“How is the US…‘trying to show flexibility’ to get back into the deal while it is still legally and officially in violation of the deal?” the Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, said by email.  “Honoring commitments must not be contingent upon any issues. We are not interested in the collapse of the deal. The U.S. knows what to do. If there is a will, there is a way.”

The U.S. administration still prefers to work out a mutual return to the deal sooner than later, and is prepared to work towards that in the next few weeks, but it understands it doesn’t control the pace or Iran’s political calendar, the US official said.

“There is no point in panicking,” the U.S. official said. “We understand that there is a calendar. We can’t cut corners for the sake of meeting the calendar.”  

“There are many reasons why things have not moved as fast as they ought to have moved,” he said. “But we are not dragging our feet. …Once their presidential campaign begins,…it could be many months in which it would be very difficult to have any progress.”

“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.”