In 2021, the Biden administration launched new diplomacy to get both Tehran and Washington to fully comply with the 2015 nuclear deal. On February 18, it announced three opening moves:
- It accepted an invitation from the European Union to meet with the P5+1 countries – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States – with Iran to chart a diplomatic way forward.
- It rescinded the Trump administration’s letter invoking “snapback sanctions” at the United Nations.
- And it lifted travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats based at the United Nations.
Diplomacy initially stalled over disagreements about which country should go first. Iran refused to meet directly with the United States unless it first lifted sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, which withdrew from the accord in May 2018. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told Politico that Tehran would wait "as long as it takes for the U.S. to return." After weeks of behind-the-scenes overtures, the E.U. announced on April 2 that it would convene indirect talks including the six major world powers and Iran.
The negotiations played out over multiple rounds:
- The first round from April 6 to 9
- The second round from April 15 to 20
- The third round from April 27 to May 1
- The fourth round from May 6 to May 19
- The fifth round from May 25 to June 2
- The sixth round which began on June 12
The following is a timeline of diplomacy to fully restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Sept. 13, 2020: As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden pledged that he would “offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy” if elected. “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations,” Biden wrote in September 2020. “With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal's provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern,” such as ballistic missiles and Iran’s regional proxies.
Jan. 29, 2021: Rob Malley was appointed Special Envoy for Iran. Malley was previously the lead U.S. negotiator for nuclear talks with Iran in 2015. The State Department praised Malley for his “track record of success negotiating constraints on Iran's nuclear program.”
Feb. 1, 2021: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suggested that the European Union could “choreograph” moves by the United States and Iran to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). ”There can be a mechanism to basically either synchronize it or coordinate what can be done,” he told CNN.
Feb. 7, 2021: President Biden reaffirmed in a CBS interview that his administration would not lift sanctions first to entice Iran back to the negotiating table.
Feb. 10, 2021: Special Envoy for Iran Malley spoke with China’s vice foreign minister Ma Zhaoxu to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, Beijing said in a phone call readout.
Feb. 18, 2021: The Biden administration announced three opening moves to jumpstart diplomacy with Iran. The three moves were accepting an invitation from the E.U. to attend a meeting of the P5+1 countries, rescinding the Trump administration invocation of “snapback” sanctions at the United Nations, and lifting travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats in New York.
US acknowledged Pompeo's claims re Res. 2231 had no legal validity.— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) February 19, 2021
In compliance w/ 2231:
US unconditionally & effectively lift all sanctions imposed, re-imposed or re-labeled by Trump.
We will then immediately reverse all remedial measures.
Feb. 19, 2021: Tehran reacted coolly to the U.S. offer of talks and instead repeated its demand that Washington lift all sanctions imposed by the Trump administration between 2018 and 2021 as a precondition to roll back its breaches of the 2015 nuclear deal. “Gestures are fine. But to revive P5+1, US must Act: LIFT sanctions,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh tweeted. “Here is the key sequence: #CommitActMeet.
Feb. 21, 2021: Zarif said that the United States needed to lift sanctions before it could meet in the P5+1 format. “All the sanctions must be removed; the United States must gain reentry to the JCPOA,” he told the state-run PressTV. “It’s not automatic; it’s not a revolving door.”
Feb. 22, 2021: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threatened to enrich uranium “to any extent that is necessary” if Washington refused to lift sanctions. “Iran's enrichment level may reach 60 percent to meet the country's needs,” he told the Assembly of Experts. He reiterated that Iran did not seek a nuclear weapon.
Feb. 28, 2021: Iran formally rejected an E.U. offer to broker direct talks with the United States. “Given the recent moves and positions of the U.S. and the three European countries, the Islamic Republic doesn’t assess the timing of an informal meeting proposed by the E.U. coordinator as appropriate,” the foreign ministry said.
March 10, 2021: Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Iran needed to take proactive steps to spur new diplomacy. “The ball is in their court to see if they are serious about re-engaging or not,” Blinken testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. U.S. negotiators would not “rush or slow things because of the Iranian elections” in June, Malley told Axios.
March 17, 2021: Malley acknowledged that “neither side is going to go first entirely” in returning to compliance with the JCPOA. “There's going to have to be some agreement on choreographing, on synchronizing,” he told BBC Persian. “We're open to discussing that. But it's going to have to be discussed. It's not going to happen simply unilaterally by one side taking all the steps and waiting then to see whether the other one reciprocates.”
March 25, 2021: Beijing pledged to play a “constructive role” in U.S.-Iran diplomacy but urged the parties to “increase the sense of urgency” over returning to the nuclear deal. “The U.S. side should take concrete actions as soon as possible, and both the United States and Iran need to meet each other halfway for the latter's return to compliance at an early date,” the vice foreign minister told Malley.
Iran is in touch with the remaining participants in the #JCPOA on issues.— Iran at the UN (@Iran_UN) March 29, 2021
No proposal is needed for the US to rejoin the JCPOA. It only requires a political decision by the US to fully and immediately implement all of its obligations under the accord and abide by UNSCR 2231.
March 29. 2021: A Politico report detailed a purported diplomatic proposal by the Biden administration made to Iran. The United States would lift some sanctions in exchange for Iran reversing the most egregious violations of the JCPOA: enriching uranium to 20 percent and its work on advanced centrifuges. But Iran appeared to publicly reject the proposal; its U.N. mission reiterated that the U.S. needed to "fully and immediately" return to the nuclear deal first.
March 30, 2021: The Biden administration would be willing to discuss a comprehensive “roadmap” for both the United States and Iran to fully return to the nuclear deal rather than limited initial steps, a U.S. official told Reuters. “If that’s what Iran wants to talk about, we are happy to talk about it,” the official said.
April 1, 2021: The European Union said that it would host a virtual meeting to discuss the “possible return of the United States to the JCPOA” with the remaining five participants of the deal, including Iran. State Department spokesperson Ned Price welcomed the meeting as a “positive step, especially if it moves the ball forward on that mutual return to compliance.”
Talks next week with European, Russian, and Chinese partners to discuss what Iran and the US need to do to resume compliance with the #JCPOA. This is a first step. Difficult discussions ahead but on the right path.— Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley (@USEnvoyIran) April 2, 2021
April 2, 2021: The United States and Iran said that they would both attend diplomatic talks in Vienna the following week to discuss the JCPOA but would not meet directly. The Vienna meeting would focus on reaching two separate agreements: one with the United States on its timetable for lifting sanctions and one with Iran on its timetable for returning into compliance, The Wall Street Journal reported.
April 5, 2021: The Iranian delegation, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, arrived in Vienna. The group included representatives from the Central Bank of Iran, the Petroleum Ministry and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. In the evening, Iran and China held a bilateral meeting.
April 6, 2021: Indirect talks between the United States and Iran began in Vienna. Two expert working groups were formed: one on the timetable for lifting U.S. sanctions on Iran, the other on reversing Iran's breaches of the nuclear deal. Araghchi said that negotiations were on "the right track," but that it was "too soon to say it has been successful."
Timely exchange with @USEnvoyIran Robert Malley. The @IAEAorg continues its work and is prepared to support the ongoing consultations from its impartial technical perspective. pic.twitter.com/G9mwFCahjm— Rafael MarianoGrossi (@rafaelmgrossi) April 7, 2021
April 7, 2021: Special Envoy Malley met with Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian ambassador in Vienna. "We had a businesslike discussion on issues related to restoration of full implementation of the #JCPOA by all sides," Ulyanov tweeted. Malley also met with IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi.
April 8, 2021: Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi met with IAEA Director General Grossi while in Vienna. Araghchi said that the IAEA would play an "important role" in verification if Iran came to an agreement with the world powers over returning to compliance with the JCPOA.
April 9, 2021: The first week of talks in Vienna concluded. No final agreement was reached, but participants agreed to reconvene the following week. The P4+1 "took stock of the work done by experts over the last three days and noted with satisfaction the initial progress made," Ambassador Ulyanov tweeted.
April 11, 2021: An explosion at Natanz hit the power supply for centrifuges and caused damage that could take up to nine months to fully repair, The New York Times reported. "Thousands of centrifuges" were destroyed, according to Alireza Zakani, head of Iran's Parliament Research Center. Foreign Minister Zarif blamed Israel but insisted that Iran would not "allow this act of sabotage to affect the nuclear talks.”
April 13, 2021: Iran said that it will begin enriching uranium to 60 percent, the highest level of enrichment that it has publicly acknowledged. The move would be a major breach of the 2015 nuclear deal and brought Tehran closer to having weapons grade uranium. Iran also planned to install 1,000 additional centrifuges at Natanz.
April 14, 2021: Britain, France and Germany expressed "grave concern" about Iran's decision to enrich uranium up to 60 percent. "Iran has no credible civilian need for enrichment at this level," the three European countries said in a joint statement. They condemned the move as "contrary to the constructive spirit and good faith" of diplomatic negotiations. Secretary of State Blinken called the decision to enrich up to 60 percent "provocative" and that it "calls into question Iran's seriousness" at the Vienna talks. "We're committed to pursuing that process, but the real question is whether Iran is," he said in Brussels.
April 15, 2021: Indirect talks over getting the United State and Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA resumed in Vienna. In Tehran, President Rouhani reiterated that Iran was not seeking a nuclear weapon. “We can enrich 90 percent today, but we stand by our word and we are not looking for an atomic bomb,” he said during a cabinet meeting. “It is YOU who made and stockpiled the atomic bomb and are still making bombs. This is what YOU do. Do not accuse us of making bombs, Iran's activities are completely peaceful.”
After intensive talks we have taken stock in the Joint Commission. Progress has been made in a far from easy task. We need now more detailed work. Key that everyone is committed to the same objectives: US rejoining the #JCPOA and its full implementation. pic.twitter.com/84CDnzC4nf— Enrique Mora (@enriquemora_) April 17, 2021
April 16, 2021: Iran began enriching uranium up to 60 percent. “We are producing about nine grams of 60 percent enriched uranium an hour,” AEOI chief Salehi said. President Joe Biden said that the step was not "helpful" to negotiations in Vienna. "We are, though, nonetheless, pleased that Iran has continued to agree to engage in discussions, indirect discussions with us and with our partners on how we move forward," he said at a news conference in the Rose Garden. The heads of the Chinese, Russian and Iranian delegations held a trilateral meeting.
April 17, 2021: The Joint Commission instructed the expert-level working groups to work over the weekend. "We need now more detailed work," Enrique Mora, E.U. coordinator for the talks tweeted. "Key that everyone is committed to the same objectives"
April 19, 2021: The U.S. and Russian delegations in Vienna held "useful" bilateral talks on lifting U.S. sanctions and returning Iran to full compliance with the JCPOA, Ambassador Ulyanov tweeted.
April 20, 2021: The Joint Commission created a third expert group "to start looking into the possible sequencing of respective measures" by the United States and Iran to reenter the JCPOA. Diplomatic talks in Vienna paused to give delegations time to consult with their capitals. Parties would resume discussions the following week. "There has been some progress, but there remains a long road ahead," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said. "And I think it’s fair to say that we have more road ahead of us than we do in the rearview mirror."
Pleased to see @iaeaorg DG @rafaelmgrossi again. Touched upon latest developments on the Vienna talks on the #JCPOA. Greatly appreciate IAEA’s work, including on Iran’s nuclear programme that is informing the JCPOA Joint Commission discussions these days. pic.twitter.com/zj90k1MlXT— Enrique Mora (@enriquemora_) May 12, 2021
April 27, 2021: Talks resumed in Vienna for the third round.
April 28, 2021: The third expert working group aimed at sequencing steps by the United States and Iran to the JCPOA met for the first time, Ambassador Ulyanov tweeted.
May 1, 2021: The Joint Commission wrapped up the third week of Vienna talks. "Moderate advances but with more detail comes more complexity," E.U. Coordinator Mora tweeted. "We will reconvene next week to continue." Ambassador Ulyanov said that participants aimed to complete talks to restore the JCPOA in three weeks.
May 6, 2021: Talks resumed in Vienna for the fourth round.
May 11, 2021: Russian Ambassador Ulyanov said that completing negotiations by May 21 was "very difficult but doable." Araghchi met with E.U. coordinator Mora and the heads of the three European delegations, IRNA reported.
May 12, 2021: Iran, Russia and China held a trilateral meeting and called for "accelerated progress" in the Vienna talks, Mehr News Agency reported.
May 14, 2021: The Iranian and Chinese delegations held a meeting to discuss the JCPOA, IRNA reported.
May 16, 2021: The U.S. and Russian delegations in Vienna held a bilateral meeting. The discussions were "frank and fruitful," Ambassador Ulyanov tweeted.
May 19, 2021: The Joint Commission met in Vienna and concluded the fourth round of talks. "We’ve made good progress. An agreement is shaping up," Mora tweeted after the meeting. "Significant" progress was reached and an agreement was "within reach," according to Ambassador Ulyanov. "Hopefully the 5th round will be final," he tweeted.
Trilateral meeting between Iran, China and Russia. Heads of delegations discussed and reviewed issues related to ongoing JCPOA negotiations. pic.twitter.com/pIvhnpv4PX— Gharibabadi (@Gharibabadi) May 31, 2021
May 21, 2021: Foreign Minister Zarif spoke with E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to discuss the state of the talks. "All sides now need to take necessary political decisions, so we can conclude negotiations & get back to full implementation," Borrell tweeted.
May 23, 2021: Secretary Blinken told CNN that the delegations in Vienna had "made progress in clarifying what each side needs to do to get back into full compliance" with the 2015 nuclear deal. But "the question that we don’t have an answer to yet, is whether Iran, at the end of the day, is willing to do what is necessary," he added.
May 25, 2021: Talks resumed in Vienna for the fifth round.
May 26, 2021: The U.S. and Russian delegations had a "useful and businesslike" meeting, according to Ambassador Ulyanov. The Russian ambassador also met with the heads of the British, French and German delegations. "We exchanged views on the progress made, the on-going diplomatic efforts and the way ahead," he tweeted.
May 31, 2021: Iran, Russia and China held a trilateral meeting in Vienna.
June 1, 2021: The U.S. and Russian delegations had a "frank discussion" on "remaining issues" about returning to the JCPOA, according to Ambassador Ulyanov.
June 2, 2021: The fifth round of talks in Vienna ended. Differences between the parties were "not insolvable," according to Iran's deputy foreign minister. "I do not think there will be much delay between today's meeting and the next round of talks," Araghchi said. "Like in the previous rounds, we will probably return to Vienna after consulting with our capitals."
June 12, 2021: Talks resumed in Vienna for the sixth round.
Andrew Hanna, a program specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace, assembled this timeline.