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Iran nuclear talks have resumed in Vienna. Here’s what to know about the negotiations

Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani leaves the venue of talks aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna on Dec. 3. (Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)

The eighth round of talks in Vienna aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal adjourned in late January amid what European diplomats called “the final stage” in negotiations — but major points of contention remain between Washington and Tehran, while negotiators warn that Iran’s nuclear program is weeks away from advancing far beyond the 2015 accord’s parameters.

Since early last year, Iran and world powers — including Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — havemet to discuss the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which had curbed Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018, reimposing a near-total embargo on Iran. Unlike in 2015, Washington has not directly participated in the talks, and instead has communicated with Tehran via European intermediaries.

In early January, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the parties had made “modest progress,” comments echoed by the French Foreign Ministry. Other countries such as Israel singled that they think a new accord could soon be reached.

The tone has shifted somewhat since early December, when negotiationsadjourned amid an impasse, leaving a major breakthrough more distant than ever. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which is responsible for monitoring Iran’s nuclear program, said that Tehran was using advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium to 20 percent purity at Fordow, its most heavily guarded enrichment facility. Iranian negotiators had also presented the signatories with a set of maximalist demands, rolling back progress Western diplomats said was made earlier in the year.

But diplomats have described this latest round of talks as the most intensive yet, with just a narrow list of differences now determining whether a deal will proceed or not.

“If a deal is not reached in the next few weeks, Iran’s ongoing nuclear advances will make it impossible to return to the JCPOA,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in late January. “But right now, there’s still a window, a brief one, to bring those talks to a successful conclusion and address the remaining concerns of all sides.”

Here’s what you need to know about the Iran nuclear deal and the obstacles to reviving it.

What is the Iran nuclear deal?

The JCPOA is an extensive arms-control agreement aimed at restricting Iran’s atomic energy program in exchange for international sanctions relief. The goal of the accord was to reduce the amount of time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, while at the same time reopening its economy to foreign trade and investment.

The 159-page document was the culmination of months of painstaking negotiations between Tehran and a group of world powers known as the P5+1, including Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. A final agreement was reached in 2015 and went into effect in early 2016.

Under the terms, Iran was required to dismantle much of its nuclear program and submit to regular intrusive inspections of its facilities by IAEA monitors. Among other restrictions, the JCPOA capped Iran’s uranium enrichment levels, curtailed its production of advanced centrifuges and converted Fordow, an underground enrichment plant, into a research facility.

In turn, the United States, United Nations and European Union together lifted billions of dollars of sanctions that had isolated Iran from the global economy for years. The deal called for the United States to ease punishing restrictions on everything from oil sales to banking transactions to the sale of commercial aircraft to Iran. It also removed so-called “secondary sanctions” that targeted non-U.S. persons or entities conducting business with Tehran.

The deal’s proponents considered it a major victory for nonproliferation and the start of a new era of re-engagement with Iran. Its critics, however, complained that it did not go far enough to block Iran’s pathway to a nuclear bomb — and actively worked to undermine its provisions.

What happened after Trump withdrew from the pact?

The accord was one of the signature foreign policy achievements of President Barack Obama. But when Trump was elected in 2016, he made no secret of his opposition to the deal — which he said was too limited in scope — and unilaterally withdrew in 2018.

His administration then embarked on what it said was a policy of “maximum pressure” against Tehran, reinstating wide-ranging sanctions and threatening military action if Iran refused to acquiesce to U.S. demands. Trump officials sought to strong-arm Tehran into renegotiating everything from its nuclear activities to ballistic missiles to support for militant proxies across the Middle East, offers Iran’s government rebuffed.

The moves by Trump deepened Iran’s mistrust of the United States and its motives. At the same time, Iranian officials pledged to remain committed to the original agreement, as long as European nations and other JCPOA signatories were willing to help offset the effects of renewed U.S. sanctions.

But as trade and investment dwindled, Iran’s economy faltered and Europe failed to muster a robust response to U.S. pressure, Tehran began gradually reducing its commitments under the pact. It also ramped up its activities in the Persian Gulf, harassing oil tankers and, in one instance, shooting down a U.S. surveillance drone. In January 2020, a U.S. strike at the Baghdad airport killed Iran’s most prominent military commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

How has Iran deviated from the agreement?

After the U.S. withdrawal, Iran gradually began violating some provisions of the JCPOA, measures it initially said were reversible as it tried to persuade Europe to reset the terms of the deal.

The agreement had laid out a strict and complicated framework for nearly every aspect of its nuclear program, from the number of advanced centrifuges it was allowed to operate to the essentially unfettered access of the IAEA monitors.

The divergences started with small increases to Tehran’s stockpile of enriched uranium and the resumption of heavy water production at the Arak reactor facility. Over time, the breaches became more serious — and brazen. Iran began developing and installing advanced centrifuges, including at facilities, like Fordow, where enrichment was prohibited under the deal. It also began restricting IAEA access to key sites, eventually ending its monitoring agreement with the agency.

Iranian officials said that such breaches were acceptable since it was still suffering under U.S. sanctions and did not reap the trade or investment benefits promised under the accord.

Now, the United States estimates that Iran could produce enough fissile material to fuel a nuclear weapon within a matter of weeks.

Can the deal be revived?

For months, analysts have been generally pessimistic about the prospects of a full return to the JCPOA — though as the close of negotiations nears and momentum grows, some cautious hope has emerged.

The Biden administration has said it will reenter the deal if Iran also returns to full compliance, but has warned that its patience is running thin.

Tehran wants the United States to first roll back all sanctions imposed under Trump, and it is also seeking a guarantee that no future U.S. administration will abandon the accord. A new hard-line administration, led by conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, has doubled down on Iran’s positions.

“Expectations for the talks were very low, and they have largely met that bar, with Iran presenting maximalist positions and Western parties repeating that time is running short,” Henry Rome, deputy head of research at the political risk firm Eurasia Group, said of the discussions in Vienna in December.

But after the latest pause in talks so that negotiators could consult with their leadership at home, the diplomatic tone has softened somewhat.

“We made progress narrowing down the list of differences … that’s why now’s the time for political decision,” a State Department official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under the agency’s rules.

Biden could lift some of the most serious sanctions that crippled Iran’s economy, according to Ali Vaez, Iran project director with the International Crisis Group. But it may prove more difficult to undo other Trump measures such as the official designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.

A number of other moves led to sanctions for senior Iranian officials for grave human rights abuses or election interference — and those may also remain in place.

With the window of opportunity narrowing, U.S. officials have called for direct talks with Iran. Iranian officials, who previously ruled that out, have signaled a willingness in the event of final negotiations.

“If we get to a stage where reaching a good deal with strong guarantees necessitates direct talks with the United States, we will consider it,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said in late January.


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