The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iran nuclear talks resume in last-ditch effort to secure deal

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in Brussels on May 17. (Olivier Matthys/AP)

Negotiations over a return to the Iran nuclear deal will resume Thursday in Vienna, with participants expressing little optimism that agreement can be reached on what the European Union facilitator of the talks indicated is a last-chance attempt to finalize a new accord.

The six countries with direct roles in the negotiations — Iran, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, with the United States participating indirectly — will meet to consider a comprehensive text agreement that the E.U. foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, put on the table late last month after concluding “that the space for additional significant compromises has been exhausted.”

“This text represents the best possible deal that I … see as feasible,” Borrell wrote last week in the Financial Times. “I see no other comprehensive or effective alternative within reach.”

The upcoming meeting represents a change from the past 18 months of start-and-stop negotiations since “we now, unlike in the past, have a text the coordinator says is basically is good as it’s going to get,” according to a senior Biden administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the closed talks.

Experts urge return to Iran nuclear deal as prospects dim

“The margins now are very tight in terms of what the scope of the talks could be about,” with “no extraneous issues” to be discussed, the official said. “We’re not going to reinvent the wheel at this point,” and “we should know very quickly” whether agreement is possible.

Although it is not at the negotiating table, the United States is a major player in the talks about returning to the original 2015 deal, under which Iran agreed to strong restraints on its nuclear program and strict international monitoring, in exchange for the lifting of crippling, nuclear-related economic sanctions imposed by the United States, Europe and the United Nations.

The Trump administration withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018, restoring the lifted sanctions and adding others. In response, Iran has increased the quality and quantity of its enriched uranium production, far beyond the limits it agreed to in the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. U.S. intelligence now estimates it could have enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon within weeks, compared to a year when the agreement was in force.

Iran has refused to meet directly with the United States since talks about a return to the deal began in April 2021 under the Biden administration. The European participants carry messages back and forth between chief U.S. negotiator Robert Malley and Iran.

Malley said in a tweet on Wednesday that he was traveling to Vienna for the talks on Borrell’s text. “Our expectations are in check,” he wrote, “but the United States welcomes E.U. efforts and is prepared for a good-faith attempt to reach a deal.”

In Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kan’ani said in a statement that Iranian negotiator Ali Bagheri was departing for the talks, which he described as “a discussion and exchange of views.”

Earlier sessions faltered in part on Iranian demands that the United States lift a foreign terrorist designation President Donald Trump imposed on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a part of the Iranian military, and that President Biden guarantee that no future administration would withdraw from a new agreement. The administration said that the former was outside the scope of the original deal, and the latter was impossible under the U.S. system of government.

During his trip last month to the Middle East, Biden heard opposition from Israel and U.S. partners in the Persian Gulf to signing a new agreement with Iran. “As we continue to work closely with many of you to counter the threats posed to the region by Iran,” he told the Gulf Cooperation Council, “we’re also pursuing diplomacy to return constraints on Iran’s nuclear program.”

“But no matter what, the United States is committed to ensuring that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon,” Biden said.