The parties appeared to be on the cusp of a deal in June, before Raisi’s election paused the talks and lowered U.S. expectations for an agreement. Iranian hard-liners replaced more moderate officials who had been known quantities to the Biden administration. Five months later, several factors appear to be stacking against the possibility of progress.
As in previous rounds of negotiations aimed at returning Iran and the United States to compliance with the accord — President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018 — the two key countries have not been meeting face to face. Their diplomats camp out in different hotels while Europeans brief the Americans.
Biden pledged on the campaign trail to revive the 2015 nuclear accord. But relief from the blitz of sanctions the Trump administration imposed hasn’t come as quickly as Iranians had hoped.
As negotiations resumed, White House press secretary Jen Psaki called a return to the deal “our best available option.” So far, however, the talks have been heavy on distrust.
Raisi told French President Emmanuel Macron last week that “sending a comprehensive team to the negotiations shows the serious will of Iran in these negotiations.” But his chief negotiator, Ali Bagheri, who once called the nuclear agreement “a sick child,” said everything negotiated during the six rounds of talks between April and June was open for discussion.
After several days, Iran presented European powers with revised drafts on sanctions removal and nuclear commitments. Bagheri has laid out a set of maximalist demands, including the immediate removal of all sanctions imposed under Trump and a guarantee that no future administration will withdraw from a deal again.
The ball was “in America’s court,” he told Middle East Eye.
The United States does not wish to remove sanctions related to Iran’s proxy wars in the region and other issues. And it is impossible for Biden to pledge that a future administration won’t undo any agreement. European diplomats have warned that unless Tehran changes course quickly, negotiations were headed for collapse.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to make nuclear advances. The country insists its nuclear program is peaceful, but it now enriches uranium up to 60 percent purity — inching toward the weapons-grade level of 90 percent. Raisi’s government has refused to give International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitors access to key sites.
The Biden administration estimates that the Iranian program’s “breakout” time for producing enough fissile material for one bomb has shrunk to less than a month, my colleague Karen DeYoung reported.
“The new Iranian team believes time is on their side and they’re using it to advance their nuclear program and build up bargaining chips,” Suzanne DiMaggio, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Today’s WorldView.
The IAEA reported last week that Iran had started the process of enriching uranium to up to 20 percent purity using more advanced centrifuges at its underground Fordow facility. The 2015 deal banned enrichment at the site.
Israel, for its part, is trying to scuttle the talks. The country, which considers Iran its archenemy, is lobbying the United States to abandon discussions.
In a call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett accused Iran of carrying out “nuclear blackmail” as a negotiation tactic.
China could also pose a major challenge, as Tehran orients its foreign policy toward east Asia.
A signatory of the 2015 nuclear deal, with genuine interest in keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, China sent a delegation to Vienna last week. But it has also bolstered its ties with Iran in recent years, becoming a leading importer of its oil and entering into a major economic cooperation deal. That relationship could continue to build even in the absence of a deal.
For China, a nuclear-armed Iran may not present quite as ominous a prospect as it does for Israel or Western powers. And mounting tensions with the United States could disincentivize cooperation on sanctions in the absence of a deal.
“If these talks break down, it will be very tough to get some of the other parties to agree to reimpose or continue with the sanctions — especially Beijing,” DiMaggio said.
Bagheri has dismissed suggestions that Iran would consider an interim deal or a more far-reaching agreement to supplant the 2015 accord.
U.S. sanctions are already so broad that the threat of more is losing its edge. Three out of five Iranians believe the United States has already sanctioned Iran to the fullest degree possible, according to a public-opinion poll conducted by the University of Maryland in August and September.
“The team at the helm today in Iran are ultra-hardliners who are more comfortable with escalation and their assessment that they can outlive any potential ‘Plan-B’ pressure track by the Biden administration,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow who focuses on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Hill newspaper.
U.S. concessions to Iran could embolden the Raisi government to demand more, while costing Biden politically. But DiMaggio said she sees a rollback of some nonnuclear sanctions as the best chance for reaching a deal.
If the talks collapse, the threat of a military escalation will grow. U.S. strikes on Iranian nuclear targets could set back the nuclear program temporarily but hand Tehran a public relation win at home, said Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group’s Iran project director. And U.S. support for any Israeli military action could embroil the United States in a broader conflict involving Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the American public has little appetite for military engagement. And a conflict with Iran would distract from the Biden administration’s priority of competition with China.
“This is a worst-case scenario for the Biden administration,” Vaez said, “because if you have an Iran that is on the verge of nuclear weaponization and you have a significant escalation in Iraq and Syria, and once again you have Americans dying in those theaters, you basically end up in a situation where there is corridor of chaos stretching all the way from the borders of Afghanistan to the borders of Israel.”