The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iran nuclear talks adjourn after ‘modest progress’ but no firm date to resume

People walk past Palais Coburg where nuclear talks took place in Vienna on Friday. (Michael Gruber/Associated Press)
Placeholder while article actions load

VIENNA — The latest round of nuclear talks between world powers and Iran adjourned here on Friday after what a senior State Department official said was a two-week session that was “better than it might have been” but “worse than it should have been.”

The official described “some modest progress” on agenda items for future discussion concerning Iran’s nuclear activities, and Iran’s agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency that resolved an outstanding verification issue.

“Given how much work needs to be done, and given that we have not yet achieved clarity on other issues … there is still a lot of work to be done,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the State Department. “Time is running out,” he said, to avoid the moment when the nuclear agreement they are working to reestablish becomes “a corpse that cannot be revived.”

The talks adjourned after the chief Iranian negotiator said he was returning to Tehran for consultations, with no firm date set to resume. In response, both the United States and delegations from Britain, France and Germany expressed dismay and said they had been prepared to continue.

“We respect the decision of the Iranian negotiator Bagheri-Kani to travel back to Tehran for consultations today — even if, to our disappointment, this entails a pause in the negotiations,” the Europeans said in a statement. “In just a few weeks — not months — the nonproliferation policy advantages achieved by the [2015 nuclear agreement] will be extinguished. We are rapidly approaching the end of the road for these negotiations.”

The Europeans, along with Russia and China, are negotiating directly with Iran to revive the deal, from which the Trump administration withdrew in 2018. Under the agreement, Iran agreed to sharply limit the quantity and quality of the enriched uranium it produced and submit to IAEA monitoring, while the United States agreed to lift nuclear-related sanctions.

Iran and global watchdog agree on nuclear verification issue

After withdrawal, Trump reimposed and increased economic sanctions designed to strangle the Iranian economy, and Iran followed by significantly expanding the amount and purity of its uranium enrichment far beyond the limits of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

President Biden came to office promising to reenter the agreement and adhere to its original terms if Iran would do the same. Iran has refused to negotiate directly with the United States, so the Europeans are serving as go-betweens.

Negotiations began in April but were suspended after six sessions in June when Iran elected a new government. Tehran’s return to the table last month, under a more hard-line government, brought what those on the other side called “unacceptable” new demands.

The European statement said that technical progress had been made over the past 24 hours “but that just brings us a little closer to where we were in June.”

“We have now a text that, with some minor exceptions, is common ground for negotiations,” European Union envoy Enrique Mora, who is coordinating the talks, told reporters Friday afternoon. “That doesn’t mean we have an agreement. We don’t.”

He said the process is “going to be politically painful at times, and we do not have much time.”

Iran’s chief negotiator, Ali Bagheri, told reporters that the pace of reaching agreement depends on the others. “If the other side accepts the rational views and positions of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the new round of talks can be the last one and we can achieve a deal in the shortest possible time,” he said, according to Iranian media.

He also indicated that China, which has supported the need to return to the original terms of the JCPOA, is more sympathetic to Iranian demands that other delegations. China has continued to purchase Iranian oil in violation of sanctions.

America warns it has ‘tools’ to deal with Iran if nuclear talks fail

As described by the State Department official, most of this week’s discussions centered on “nuclear issues” of how the Iranian program would return to compliance with the JCPOA.

Thanks to European diplomacy, the official said, “we now have a common understanding of the text that will serve as a basis for negotiations on nuclear issues.” While a “welcome step,” the official cautioned that enthusiasm should be curbed because “we are now at best where we were last June … compiling items on an agenda that have to be resolved but were not resolved during this round.”

The United States and its partners have said that continued expansion of Iran’s nuclear activities have brought it closer to having the materials and much of the know-how to produce a nuclear weapons, although Iran has said that is not its goal. If those activities progress beyond a certain point, including continued use of advanced centrifuges and enrichment and stockpiles of highly enrich uranium far beyond the limits of the JCPOA, there will be little point in continuing the effort.

While the official declined to say when that time would arrive, some experts have estimated it may be a matter of a few months, if not weeks.

“We were ready to continue to do the work necessary,” the official said. “The Iranian delegation has its reasons, I’m sure, for wanting to go back. The point is we hope they return soon … with a sense of urgency.”

“Regardless of whatever progress is made, the pace at which we are moving won’t suffice to save the JCPOA,” the official added. “There is going to have to be an acceleration. Iran is going to have to come back with a clear set of issues it prioritizes and how to resolve them. They will find on the part of the U.S. a party prepared to negotiate seriously, constructively and creatively.”

Meanwhile, a group of seven prominent former policymakers, including former CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta and former U.S. Central Command chief and CIA director David Petraeus released a statement Friday calling on the administration to “restore Iran’s fear that its current nuclear path will trigger the use of force against it by the United States.”

In response to their proposals for increased U.S. military exercises and provision of more deterrent weaponry to countries in the region, the senior official said that “no doubt Iran sees very clearly at this point” that it has “two paths in front of it,” the lifting of sanctions and reduction in isolation, and “the path of crisis.”