US: Still ‘serious differences’ to resolve for Iran deal, talks won’t go on indefinitely

Iran’s election of conservative Ebrahim Raisi “does not affect our determination to try to reach a deal or the pace at which we will go about pursuing it.”

A senior American diplomat said today there are still several unresolved differences to bridge with Iran before reaching agreement on returning to the Iran nuclear deal. While he did not issue a deadline, he said the process would not go on indefinitely.

“We still have serious differences that have not been bridged,” the senior State Department official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists on a call today (June 24).

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” he continued. “And there’s still some very important issues that need to be resolved. …. It remains possible…but we’re not there yet, and I’m not going to speculate as to if or when we will get there.”

While the United States considers “pre-manufactured” the pre-election engineering that resulted in the victory last week of conservative Judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s next president, the American official said, that would not change the Biden administration’s objective of trying to strike a deal on returning to the 2015 nuclear pact as a first step to discussions on other concerns with Iran.

“We’ve said already… this was a pre-manufactured process that did not reflect the will of the Iranian people,” the State Department official said. “That said, from our point of view, it does not affect our determination to try to reach a deal or the pace at which we will go about pursuing it.”

On Iran’s insistence that it wants a guarantee that the U.S. won’t quit the deal again, the U.S. official said there are no guarantees. Former President Trump quit the deal in 2018 even though Iran was strictly abiding by it, and imposed crippling economic sanctions on Iran. Iran has been progressively exceeding the deal’s nuclear limits since 2019 to protest the lack of sanctions relief, reducing its breakout time and enriching to higher levels than before Trump quit the deal.

“There is no such thing as a guarantee, and I think Iran knows it and we know it,” the State Department diplomat said.

He also continued to press for including language on follow-on talks in any deal reached in Vienna, and said Iran too should want follow on talks.

“Our position is very clear…that we’re going to need follow-on talks,” the American official said. “This is not only something that we think would help us. We do think that it… should be in Iran’s interest because they have issues that they’re going to want to bring to the table.”

While negotiators have made progress on the general framework and on sequencing, “there are still four buckets of issues that there are serious disagreements on,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group, told me.  “These have remained more or less unresolved in the previous six rounds” of negotiations in Vienna to date.

He identified the four buckets as: (1) sanctions the Iranians wanted lifted and the U.S. wants to keep in place; (2) Nuclear measures. “There are still some disagreements about what exactly Iran needs to do to make up for the fact that some of the advancements it made… are irreversible,” Vaez said. (3) Iran’s demand for guarantees that the U.S. won’t quit the deal again. (4) The U.S. demand for follow-on talks.

“Iran’s request for a guarantee is not just a political argument, but an economic argument,” Vaez said. “It argues no company will invest in Iran in the absence of such a guarantee. …One of the problems is, there really is no practical solution to it.”

Some, however, see in the Iranian demand for guarantees a potential response to the U.S. request for language in any deal now for follow-on talks.

“This is one set of unresolved issues where it seems there could be a kind of [trade off], in which Iran drops the demand for guarantees, if the U.S. is willing to drop the demand that there be language in the document about follow on talks,” an expert close to the talks, speaking not for attribution, told me.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the top negotiator at the Vienna talks, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi have now briefed Iranian president-elect Raisi on the negotiations to date. It is likely in the next round of talks in Vienna, there will be an observer from Raisi’s team joining the Iranian side, the Crisis Group’s Vaez said.

“The Iranian system knows fully well what it takes to make a deal. They know they are not going to get 100% of what they want,” the Crisis Group’s Vaez said. “Both sides have to demonstrate more flexibility and compromise.”

The U.S. official expected to be notified of when the seventh round of negotiations would be held in Vienna after the Iranians finished their consultations—likely some time next week. Asked how much longer talks would go on, in the event no deal is reached, he said not indefinitely.

“I’m not going to sit here and say there’s a deadline,” the American official said. “Obviously this will be a decision for the President and his national security team to take.

“But… this process is not going to be open forever,” the official continued. “This is not something that…could go on indefinitely. …We’ve had serious discussions [in Vienna], we’ve made progress,… but we do have differences. And if we can’t bridge them in the foreseeable future, I think we’re going to have to regroup and figure out how we move ahead.”

Raisi is supposed to be inaugurated in early August.