In April 2021, the United States attended indirect talks on returning to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal hosted by the European Union in Vienna. The talks include the other five world powers – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – and Iran. “Our focus is on looking for a diplomatic path forward with Iran,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on April 14. “That’s where we feel we can have a role and where we feel we can constructively move things forward, even though those are indirect negotiations.”
The negotiations played out over six 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 from June 12 to June 20
The goal of the Vienna talks was to draft a roadmap of steps -- one on the United States lifting sanctions and one on Iran rolling back its nuclear program. But U.S. and Iranian diplomats did not participate in the same sessions.
The new diplomacy is designed to reverse the policy of President Donald Trump, who abandoned the accord in May 2018. He also reimposed punitive economic sanctions that had been lifted by the deal. After the Trump decision, Iran continued to comply with its obligations for more than a year. But in July 2019, it began breaching the agreement. Iran’s breaches were incremental and calibrated until the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top nuclear scientist, in November 2020.
Iran then took steps--including enriching uranium up to 20 percent--that could bring Tehran closer to sufficient fuel for a bomb. Enriching from 20 percent to weapons-grade levels--90 percent or higher--could be a relatively quick process if Tehran made the political decision to actually produce the world’s deadliest weapon. As a result of Iran’s breaches, the so-called breakout time – or the time Iran would need to enrich enough uranium to make one nuclear bomb – has shortened from one year in 2015 to about three months in 2021, the Institute for Science and International Security estimated. The following are U.S. statements on the new diplomacy.
President Joe Biden
Remarks with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on June 28, 2021: "We’re going to be discussing a broad range of challenges, including Iran. What I can say to you: Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on my watch, as they say. I directed last night’s airstrikes targeting sites used by the Iranian-backed militia groups responsible for recent attacks on the U.S. personnel in Iraq. And I have that authority under Article 2 [of the U.S. Constitution]."
Press conference in the Rose Garden on April 16, 2021: "We do not support and do not think it’s at all helpful that Iran is saying it’s going to move to enrich to 60 percent. It is contrary to the agreement. 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 and what is needed to allow us to move back into the [JCPOA], and so that we are a part of it again — that we should have never gotten out of, in my view — without us making concessions that we’re just not willing to make. And so the discussions are underway. I think it’s premature to make a judgement as to what the outcome will be, but we’re still talking."
Secretary of State Antony Blinken
Interview with Al Jazeera Arabic on July 29: "Unfortunately, Iran has not yet made the basic decision about whether it is willing to do what’s necessary to come back into compliance with that agreement [JCPOA]."
"We are prepared to go back to Vienna at any time to focus on diplomacy and to return to compliance with the agreement. But this can’t be an indefinite process. At some point, if Iran continues to make the advances it’s made on its nuclear program, as it’s lifted the constraints imposed by the nuclear agreement, it will get to a point where we can’t deal with that simply by coming back into compliance with the nuclear agreement."
Briefing in Paris on June 25: "We still have significant differences with Iran... We are only going to reach an agreement with Iran if it honors its obligations under the JCPOA, and we are just not there yet."
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 8: "I would anticipate that even in the event of a return to compliance with the JCPOA, hundreds of sanctions will remain in place, including sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. If they are not inconsistent with the JCPOA, they will remain unless and until Iran's behavior changes,"
Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on June 7: "It remains unclear whether Iran is willing and prepared to do what it needs to do come back into compliance...Meanwhile, its program is galloping forward.. The longer this goes on, the more the breakout time gets down... it's now down, by public reports, to a few months at best. And if this continues, it will get down to a matter of weeks."
Interview with Channel 12 in Jerusalem on May 25:
Question: "Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said last Thursday that his country’s close to reaching a deal. He said we have taken a big step and an agreement in principle has been achieved. Is that true? How close is the deal?"
Blinken: "Well, I think that would be news to us, because we’re now in the fifth rounds of talks in Vienna. These are – as I think you know – indirect talks. We haven’t been talking directly to the Iranians. It’s been through the European Union and our other partners. I think we’ve clarified increasingly what each side would need to do to come back into compliance with the JCPOA, but it remains an unanswered question whether Iran is actually prepared to do what it needs to do to come back into compliance. The jury is still out on that."
Question: "Israeli prime minister has been quite clear in his opposition to the Iran deal. Today during your joint statement, he said, “I hope the U.S. [does] not [return] to the old JCPOA.” So let me ask you, Mr. Secretary, are the plans indeed to return to the same terms as the JCPOA or additional safeguards, for example to ensure that Iran – Iran’s compliance?"
Blinken: "The United States and Israel are absolutely united in the proposition that Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon. We are joined in that goal and in that commitment. It’s also no secret that over time we’ve had differences over the best way to get there, to make sure that Iran does not get a weapon. From our perspective, the JCPOA did exactly what it set out to accomplish, which was to cut off all of the pathways that Iran had to producing fissile material for a nuclear weapon on short order. And our experts verified that it was working, international experts verified that it was working, and it had the most intrusive inspections regime of any arms control agreement ever achieved. And the result was that when the agreement was in force, Iran, had it decided to try to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon, would have required at least a year to do so, which would have been plenty of time to see it and, if necessary, to do something about it.
"But here’s what happened since. Now that we’re out of the deal, Iran has started to ignore the constrains that the deal imposed. And it is closer and closer and closer to being able to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon on very short order. And so far from getting less dangerous without the deal, it’s gotten more dangerous. And I think there’s a certain amount of urgency to try to put Iran back into the nuclear box that the deal constructed.
"So having said that, what we’ve said along is if we succeed in doing that, if Iran returns to compliance with the deal, we would do the same. We would also seek to make it, as we say, longer and stronger. And we’d also work hard to engage the other issues where Iran is a very dangerous and problematic actor for us and for Israel – destabilizing activities in the region, proliferation of weapons, support for terrorist groups, et cetera. All of those things —"
Question: "So when you say 'longer' does that mean the sunset clause is extended, for example? It won’t end in 2031?"
Blinken: "Yeah, I think this is important. Of course, with the passage of time the different timelines have gotten shorter. Having said that, the two most important timelines – the level at which Iran can enrich, 3.67 percent, the limits on the stockpile of enriched uranium to 300 kilograms – those don’t expire until 2030. So if Iran were to come back into compliance, we would also have some time to seek to extend those deadlines and others."
Remarks to press in Jerusalem on May 25: "What we have done very, very resolutely, as we’ve tried to see whether a return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA is possible, is that we have regularly before, during, and after all of our engagements – indirect engagements with the Iranians in Vienna – kept our partners here in Israel informed, as well as others who are concerned. And that’s not going to stop."
"We’re working to see if we can get back into mutual compliance. We’ve said all along that that would be a first step, that we also would seek to try to make the agreement longer and stronger, and also to deal with other issues and other challenges posed by Iran, to include its support for terrorism, its support for destabilizing proxy groups in countries throughout the region, its proliferation. All of these things we’re determined to engage, but the first thing we’re trying to achieve is to, as I said, put the nuclear problem back into the box that we constructed and that was strong, solid, and doing what we needed to do.
"Now, we’re engaged or about to engage in I think the fifth round of discussions in Vienna, and we still don’t know the answer to the most important question, which is whether Iran is actually willing and able to make the decisions it needs to make to come back into full compliance. The jury is still out, and we will see whether or not Iran makes that decision."
"We said all along that if there was an opportunity, we would seek to return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA, but we also said that from day one, we would be keeping our closest allies and closest partners fully and contemporaneously informed of what we were doing and where we were going. And that’s what we’ve done and that’s what we’ll continue to do. That is how you keep faith with your partners and allies on something that, of course, is of great consequence to Israel. We understand that. And again, we have the same objective, and let’s see where things go in the next few weeks. But I can again tell you that we are fully engaged with our partners here in at least making sure that they’re fully informed of what we’re doing."
Press conference in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 25: "We had a detailed discussion about Israel’s security needs, including replenishing Iron Dome. We’ll continue to strengthen all aspects of our longstanding partnership. And that includes consulting closely with Israel, as we did today, on the ongoing negotiations in Vienna around a potential return to the Iran nuclear agreement, at the same time as we continue to work together to counter Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region."
Remarks on CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS on May 23, 2021: "I think the steps that Iran is taking underscore the urgency of trying to get Iran back into compliance with its obligations under the nuclear deal, the deal that stopped their – the dangerous aspects of their nuclear program, the prospect that they could have fissile material for a nuclear weapon on short order. We’ve had, I think, five rounds of conversations now, of talks now, indirect in Vienna. And in fact, our team’s going back to Vienna in the coming days to pursue that. I think we’ve actually made progress in clarifying what each side needs to do to get back into full compliance.
"The outstanding question, 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 to come back into compliance with the agreement. That’s the proposition that we’re testing. But it’s getting, I think, through these rounds of discussions and talks, clearer and clearer what needs to happen. The question is: Is Iran prepared to do it?"
"We are fully prepared to go back to the original deal as it was. That’s our initial objective. And we – again, we don’t know if the Iranians are. If we do, if we succeed in that, then we can use that as a foundation both to look at how we can make the deal itself potentially longer and stronger, and also engage on these other issues, whether it’s Iran’s support for terrorism, its proliferation, its destabilizing support for different proxies throughout the Middle East."
Press conference with the Australian foreign minister on May 13, 2021: "I don’t have anything to offer on whether there is Iranian involvement or not in what’s taking place [in Gaza], but I would only say that when it comes to any of the malign activities that Iran may or may not be engaged in, whether it is support for terrorism, whether it’s efforts to destabilize other countries, whether it is other actions that we find objectionable, that only underscores the importance of doing everything we can to make sure that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. An Iran with a nuclear weapon or with the capacity to have one on very short order is an Iran that’s likely to act with even greater impunity when it comes to these other actions. So the talks go on in Vienna in an effort to see if we can return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA, and those will continue."
Interview with The Financial Times on May 3, 2021: "I don’t want to get into hypotheticals about what one outcome or another in Iran’s elections – what impact that would or wouldn’t have on any nuclear negotiations. And to your point, I think it’s clear who the decider is in the Iranian system, and that’s the supreme leader, and he’s the one who has to make the fundamental decisions about what Iran’s approach would be.
"We’ve had serious discussions in Vienna that have gone on now for several weeks. I think we’ve seen some progress at least in demonstrating the seriousness with which the United States takes the effort to return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA. We still have a long way to go if we’re going to get anywhere, and in particular, we still have to see whether Iran is willing and able to make the necessary decisions on its part for returning to compliance. And I think as one of my colleagues said the other day, there is more road yet to go than road that’s been traveled, so let’s see where we get."
Press conference in Brussels on April 14, 2021: "With regard to Iran, we take very seriously its provocative announcement of an intent to begin enriching uranium at 60 percent, and the P5+1 should be unified and united in rejecting that. I have to tell you the step calls into question Iran’s seriousness with regard to the nuclear talks, just as it underscores the imperative of returning to mutual compliance with the JCPOA.
"The United States and Iran have both stated a common objective of returning to mutual compliance with the JCPOA. We’ve been engaged constructively in a diplomatic process to achieve that goal. In Vienna last week, we explored concrete approaches that we could take, the steps that Iran and the United States would take to return to compliance. And I think the United States demonstrated very clearly to the other participants in this effort and to the world our seriousness of purpose. It remains to be seen whether Iran has that same seriousness of purpose.
"But the goal – returning to compliance with the JCPOA – and the diplomatic process, which is resuming in Vienna this week – that remains the best way to limit Iran’s nuclear program in a lasting way, to verifiably ensure that Iran cannot produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon on short notice. And we’re committed to pursuing that process, but the real question is whether Iran is, and we’ll find out."
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman
Remarks at the Atlantic Council on May 7, 2021: "There’s been some progress made, but there’s still a long way to go on this. I am hopeful that we can reach an understanding so that the IAEA technical agreement that expires with Iran at the end of May can be extended. I’m hopeful that we make enough progress that it can stand as the Iranian election gets underway in June. I don’t know if we can get to compliance for compliance agreement and an agreement to continue discussions past that by the deadline of their election. But I thank Europe for their extraordinary work in trying to move forward."
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan
Remarks on ABC News on June 20, 2021: “I think what we need to do in the United States is keep our eye on the ball. And that is our paramount priority right now is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. We believe that diplomacy is the best way to achieve that, rather than military conflict. And so, we're going to negotiate in a clear-eyed, firm way with the Iranians to see if we can arrive at an outcome that puts their nuclear program in the box. And in that regard, whether the president is person A or person B is less relevant than whether their entire system is prepared to make verifiable commitments to constrain their nuclear program.”
Question: “Do you think Raisi's election actually increases the chances of reaching a deal?”
Sullivan: “It's hard to speculate about the internal dynamics in Iran on a question like that. What I would say is that the ultimate decision for whether or not to go back into the deal lies with Iran's supreme leader. And he was the same person before this election as he is after the election.
“Ultimately, it lies with him and his decision as to whether he wants to go down the path of diplomacy here or face mounting pressure not just from the United States, but the rest of the international community.”
Question: “Raisi himself is facing personal sanctions from the U.S. for his complicity with human rights abuses. Is the U.S. willing to lift those personal sanctions if that’s what it takes to get a deal?”
Sullivan: “The whole question of which sanctions will be lifted is currently being negotiated in Vienna, and I’m not going to conduct those negotiations in public. What I will say is that the United States retains the right even under the JCPOA, even under the Iran nuclear deal, to impose sanctions for reasons other than the nuclear file, for terrorism, for human rights, for missile development.”
Remarks to press on June 9: "Russia is a member of the P5+1. The American negotiating team is working with the Russian negotiating team in Vienna. They have worked together in a productive and constructive way, to a large extent. And so this will be an opportunity for the two presidents to be able to consult on where we think we are in those talks and what needs to be done to get them across the line... We don’t underestimate the difficulty of any nuclear negotiation with the Iranians, since we’ve been through them. But we do believe that there is scope for follow-on negotiations to build on the JCPOA once we are back in it. And we believe the Iranians will ultimately be prepared to engage in those negotiations. There are things for them to gain, because there are many aspects of our sanctions that are not necessarily part of the original JCPOA. And, of course, we retain all of the right and capacity to take additional steps if they’re not prepared to negotiate in good faith."
Remarks on ABC on May 2, 2021: "We have not yet reached agreement in Vienna which is where the talks between the world powers and Iran are taking place right now. There's still fair distance to travel to close the remaining gaps and those gaps are over what sanctions the United States and other countries will roll back. They are over what nuclear restrictions Iran will accept on its program to ensure that they can never get a nuclear weapon. And our diplomats will keep working at that over the coming weeks to try to arrive at a mutual return to the JCPOA, which is the Iran nuclear deal on a compliance-for-compliance basis. So the short answer, Martha, is there is no deal now. We're hoping to continue to make progress and we’re hoping ultimately to achieve the objective that President Biden has laid out."
Interview with CNN on April 21, 2021: “Now, these negotiations are taking place indirectly, which means the United States and Iran are not currently sitting across the table from one another. What's happening is, our partners, the world powers, are sitting with the Iranians to talk to them about both the nuclear restrictions that they will have to accept and the sanctions relief that would flow from that.
“And then they're coming into the other room and talking to the American negotiator and going back and forth. We now have a moment to be able to take stock of where we are in that process. We have made some progress. There's still distance to travel.
“But, ultimately, the United States is committed to returning to the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, on a compliance-for-compliance basis, as we have said now from the start of this administration.”
“The United States is not going to make any moves on this issue until we have clarity and confidence that Iran is prepared to put its nuclear program back in the box it was in during the Iran nuclear deal.”
Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley
Politico Interview on August 19, 2021: “It’s just one big question mark,” Malley said of rejoining the multinational accord. It is “not something that we can fully control," he added, citing limited Iranian engagement. “But there is absolute justification to have a question mark, because if you haven’t reached [a deal] yet, the talks drag on. If Iran’s nuclear advances progress, and Iran continues to take provocative nuclear steps, not even mentioning their regional provocations … that pulls in the other direction [away from a deal]."
"I wouldn’t be helping you much if I gave you a percentage,” he insisted. “We are prepared to resume the talks, which we wouldn’t do if we didn’t think [a deal] was possible.”
Malley said that his team is preparing some contingency plans in the event that the United States and Iran were to not agree on terms over the coming months, including (1) the signing of a wholly separate agreement with new parameters and (2) punitive measures taken in coordination with European allies.
While both governments want to return to the deal, progress is delayed by Iran's political transition and the mistrust sowed during the maximum pressure campaign of the Trump administration, Malley explained.
"It at least makes us very aware of the fact that it is certainly not a done deal, that it’s a legitimate question whether we will be able to come back, and that we have to be prepared for a world in which Iran’s intentions are not to go back into the [pact], at least not in a realistic way."
Greatly disturbed by Iran's alleged plot to kidnap a U.S. citizen. We strongly condemn Iran's continued attempts at kidnapping journalists and critics of the regime in order to silence dissent.— Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley (@USEnvoyIran) July 14, 2021
Even as the U.S. remains willing to engage in diplomacy toward a mutual return to the JCPOA, we will not hesitate to defend our citizens and call out Iran’s human rights abuses.— Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley (@USEnvoyIran) July 14, 2021
Remarks an event hosted by Hostage Aid on July 6, 2021: "We're saying [to the Iranians] all of them [American detainees] have to come home. We don't want to do a partial deal. We don't want to leave anyone behind. Again, I know how painful that was last time and don't want to relive history."
"We've made some progress. We're not there yet."
"The Iranians are — I can't think of any other word other than being extortionist in this regard and trying to get as much as they can."
NPR Interview on June 25, 2021: "We're somewhere between the very hard and the possible. We still think it's doable. There's no reason we shouldn't be able to reach a deal. But it depends also on what positions Iran is going to take."
"We're not desperate for a deal any more than we believe Iran is desperate for a deal. But we would walk away if the deal that Iran is prepared to accept is not one that we feel meets our bottom-line interests."
"I don't think that this window is going to be open forever. At some point, we'll have to conclude that this is not succeeding, but we're not there yet. We still think that it's possible. We still think that it's certainly in our interests. We think it's in Iran's interest, too. But they'll have to make that decision for themselves."
"Get back to where we were in 2016 with a cap on the levels of enrichment, with a cap on what centrifuges they could use to enrich, with a cap on the amount of enriched uranium they could have and with the IAEA, the nuclear inspectors being able to monitor everything they're doing, which is not occurring today."
Tweet on May 24, 2021:
The latest round of talks was constructive and saw meaningful progress. But much work still needs to be done. On our way to Vienna for a fifth round where we hope we can further advance toward a mutual return to compliance.— Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley (@USEnvoyIran) May 24, 2021
Tweet on April 27, 2021:
Good discussion this morning with our GCC partners regarding the status of JCPOA talks and regional security. Heading back to Vienna for the next round of talks toward our objective of a mutual return to JCPOA compliance. pic.twitter.com/hXRW86SIVH— Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley (@USEnvoyIran) April 27, 2021
Interview with NPR on April 6, 2021: "We'll work as closely as we can with Congress. And this is a very polarizing issue. We understand that. At the same time we've stated clearly it was what the president ran on — that we would come back into the deal if Iran resumed compliance and then work on it to achieve what I think every member of Congress has said he or she wants to achieve, which is a stronger, longer deal that meets U.S. core interests. But also would have to include further steps that Iran is looking for. And doing this in coordination with our regional allies, our regional partners."
"What we would pursue is, first of all, a longer agreement. Even though this one lasts quite some time and some of its provisions last forever, of course, it would be better, as in any arms control agreement, to see whether we could get a follow-on deal that extends the timelines...And, you know, we have concerns about Iran's ballistic missile program. We have concerns about their activities in the region. We want to talk about all that. But we're much better off talking about all of that if we could at least put the current nuclear issue to the side and not have to worry every day about what the latest Iranian announcement will be."
"We will negotiate with whoever is in power in Iran. And if we could reach an understanding before the elections, fine. And if we can't, we'll continue after that with whoever is in office in Tehran. So we can't ignore the reality of an election, but we can't let it dictate our pace either."
Interview with PBS on April 2, 2021: "The goal is to see whether we can agree on what steps the United States needs to take to come back into compliance with the nuclear deal and what steps Iran has to take to come back into compliance with the nuclear deal. It's been many years since the United States has had that kind of engagement with Iran. It's going to be indirect. But we have seen the product of several years in which the Trump administration had tried to impose maximum pressure on Iran, withdrawing from the deal, trying to get Iran to surrender and to agree to better terms."
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
"This is just the first step. It's going to be a difficult, arduous path because of how much time has gone by and how much mutual distrust there is. But our goal is to discuss indirectly with our European and other partners who have internal discussions with Iran to see whether we could define those steps that both sides are going to have to take. If they're serious about coming back into compliance with the deal, we're serious. President Biden said it during the campaign and since that the United States is prepared for a mutual return back into compliance."
"If we're realistic about what both sides have to do, if we engage in this with a realistic and constructive frame of mind, we could get there. But if either side takes a maximalist position, and says that the other side has to do everything first before it's going to move one inch, I think it's hard to see how this succeeds."
"We understand that there's an election coming up. And we know that Iran is very well aware of it. But our goal is to get to a correct return to the JCPOA, to the nuclear deal. And that's — and we will follow that pace in a very determined way. But we're not going to cut corners if we can't get a proper understanding before that time."
"We have American detainees unjustly detained in Iran. We can't forget them. And anything that happens on the nuclear side, whether we succeed or fail, our goal is going to be to get them back home."
White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain
Remarks on CBS on May 2, 2021:
QUESTION: "There are reports that the Iranian government has agreed with the West to release some detainees. What can you tell us about that?"
KLAIN: "John, I can tell you, unfortunately, that report is untrue. There is no agreement to release these four Americans. We're working very hard to get them released. We raised this with Iran and our interlocutors all the time. But so far there's no agreement to bring these four Americans home."
White House Spokesperson Jen Psaki
Press Briefing on June 21, 2021: "The president’s view and our view is that the decisionmaker here is the Supreme Leader. That was the case before the election; is the case today; will be the case, probably, moving forward. The Iran nuclear negotiating teams just finished their six rounds of talks. They have not yet announced the seventh round. But as is typical, they’re back consulting with capitals. And we’re looking forward to seeing where that goes moving forward."
"We strongly urge the Iranian government, regardless of who’s in power, to release political prisoners, improve respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all Iranians."
Press Briefing on April 27, 2021: "We always expected the talks would proceed again. So Rob Malley, I believe, is either on his way to the region or there now to take part in an additional round of negotiations. We have felt that even though they’re direct — indirect, I should say — that obviously a diplomatic process, diplomatic discussions are the right approach. And we have been encouraged by the fact that they’ve been continuing."
Press Briefing on April 21, 2021: "The discussions have been thorough and thoughtful — if indirect — and we’ve shared some ideas, we still expect there to be a path forward. So I don’t — I don’t think we’re in a position to set ambitious goals like a conclusion in 10 weeks — 2 weeks, at this point."
Press Briefing on April 6, 2021: "Today is the first day of discussions. As you know, these discussions are happening in [Vienna], and they are happening through our European counterparts and partners. We expect them to have difficult portions. We expect this to be a long process. And we, you know, continue to believe that a diplomatic path is the right path forward, and there are benefits to all sides.
"When the Trump administration pulled out of the Joint [Comprehensive] Plan of Action, what they left us with is a far-decreased visibility of Iran's nuclear capability, of inspections at their sites, of an understanding of how close they were to acquiring a nuclear weapon. That's not in anyone's interest, certainly not the American people."
"It's important to convey to our P5+1 partners, too that we believe diplomacy is the best step forward, is the most appropriate step forward. And Rob Malley -- who is somebody who is experienced, who has been a part of negotiations in the past -- is certainly an appropriate level individual from the government to be there."
State Department Spokesperson Ned Price
Press Briefing on July 14, 2021: "As I’ve made very clear, the United States is prepared to resume indirect talks with Iran, to resume that seventh round of negotiations. We are ready to go if and when the Iranians signal they are as well. And that’s precisely because we want to see Iran’s nuclear program once again verifiably and permanently constrained and Iran permanently barred from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon. "
"This process is not indefinite, as the Secretary has said, as you’ve heard me reiterate. There will come a point where our calculus will change, where the gains that Iran is able to make in its nuclear program, the benefits it accrues might one day outweigh the benefit that the international community would accrue from a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. We’re not there yet, but that is why we believe we should – the international community, the United States together with our closest allies and some of our partners in the form of the P5+1 - should return to Vienna for these talks just as soon as we can.
"We are prepared to return to Vienna for a seventh round of talks. We understand that the Iranians are still undergoing consultations. As we’ve always said, Iran will have to make tough political decisions, including the strategic decision of whether it’s willing to entertain a mutual return to compliance. Only Iran can tell us that. I understand Rouhani also said that the collective approach to negotiations has been serious and businesslike. We wouldn’t take issue with that, but again, if and when there’s a seventh round – and we certainly hope there is one – that is a question that is best addressed to Tehran."
"We’re engaged in indirect discussions with the Iranians on an urgent basis to try to secure the release of the Americans who are unjustly and outrageously held against their will in Tehran... This is a practice that is abhorrent. It is a practice that the United States, together with many of our closest allies, have condemned in the strongest possible terms."
"We are working concertedly with the international community to do all we can to see to it that this is a practice that is relegated to the dustbin of history and that doesn’t continue to occur. The fact that Iran has done this is something that is deeply abhorrent and outrageous, and as we work on the broader challenge, we are working on what we hope is the nearer-term challenge of seeking to effect the return, the release of these Americans who are unjustly detained in Iran."
Press Briefing on July 12, 2021: "Special Envoy Malley and his team are prepared to return to Vienna for a seventh round of talks as soon as they are scheduled. Questions about when or whether Iran would be prepared to start a seventh round or reach an understanding on a mutual return to the JCPOA, those can only be addressed by Tehran. They can’t be routed here. We’ve made very clear that we are prepared to return to a seventh round. Again, we’re not imposing a deadline on these talks, but Secretary Blinken has made the point, I’ve made the point from here as well, that we are conscious that as time proceeds, Iran’s nuclear advances will have a bearing on our view of ultimately returning to the JCPOA.
"So again, we stand ready to resume negotiations. We continue to believe that diplomacy is the most effective means at our disposal to achieve what we seek, and that is verifiably and permanently ensuring that Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon."
Press Briefing on July 7, 2021: The team has been back here at the department meeting with officials throughout the building, including with Secretary Blinken, updating him on the progress of those talks. Of course, nothing is certain in the world of diplomacy, but I think we have every expectation that there will be a seventh round of talks at the appropriate moment, at the right time, and our team looks forward to being engaged in that next round of talks when it does begin... The team continues to remain here, continues to engage in discussions, continues to do important work from the department, but that team will be ready, will be prepared to travel back to Vienna when there’s a seventh round of talks."
Press briefing on June 21, 2021: "The sixth round of Vienna talks adjourned on Sunday and delegations are returning to their respective capitals for consultations. That includes Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley and the delegation. I understand that Rob is currently in transit back to the United States. The timing for the seventh round has not yet been announced, but I would expect the team will return to Vienna in advance of that."
"Even though Iran will have a new president in the coming weeks, ultimately it is Iran’s supreme leader who determines Iran’s policy on a range of important issues. Iran will have, we expect, the same supreme leader in August as it will have today, as it had before the elections, as it had in 2015 when the JCPOA was consummated for the first time."
"The seventh round of indirect negotiations with the Iranians we expect will take place in Vienna in the coming days and we’ll remain engaged in that process going forward."
"We have made very clear publicly but also privately that we deem the JCPOA to be necessary – necessary to once again ensure Iran’s program, nuclear program, is back in a box, once again subject to the most stringent verification and monitoring regime every negotiated. But we’ve also made the point that to us it’s insufficient. It is insufficient because we need to ensure that these other areas of concern will be able to be addressed. That includes the ballistic missile program. That includes Iran’s support for terrorist groups and for proxies in the region. It includes the human rights abuses that we’ve spoken to."
Press briefing on June 3, 2021: "We’ve always said that this will be a set of negotiations that spans multiple rounds. We expect there will be a sixth. I think there’s just about every expectation there will be subsequent rounds beyond that. The fact is that we have made progress. The past rounds have helped to crystalize the choices that Iran would need to make, the steps that Iran would need to take to resume its own compliance with the nuclear deal, the steps that it would need once again to be subject to the stringent verification and monitoring regime, the limitations on heavy water, the limitations on centrifuges, the limitations that permanently – and again, verifiably – prevents Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon. And on our end too, it has helped to illuminate for us what we would need to do, including with our own sanctions, to resume our compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal."
"What we have said is that as a necessary but insufficient step, we are looking to return to mutual compliance. We are willing to return to compliance with the deal, knowing that, again, the benefits we would accrue from Iran doing the same would profoundly be in our own national interest. I say it’s necessary but insufficient because there are follow-on steps that we would like to see from there: a longer and stronger nuclear deal to address some of the issues that you raised, and follow-on agreements that address the broader set of threats, challenges we see from the Iranian regime – support for proxies in the region, support for terrorism and terrorist groups, its destabilizing activities, its human rights abuses."
"As we continue with the nuclear issue, we have remained resolutely focused on the issue of Americans who are unjustly detained in Iran. At every opportunity we raise those Americans. We have done so in the context of these talks, and we will continue to do so until and unless those Americans are safely reunited."
Press briefing on April 29, 2021: "It is fair to say that some progress has been made. We have a better understanding of what we might need to do were Iran to go back into compliance, and it is our assessment that the Iranians have a better sense of what they would need to do to resume their compliance with the JCPOA. But that remains a hypothetical; it remains an if. And big challenges remain. I think it is fair to say that we are not on the cusp of any breakthrough, and again, there is a potentially long road ahead of us."
"There has been a heavy focus on what the United States might need to do were Iran to resume its compliance with the JCPOA. I think what is often omitted from that discussion is the other side of that equation, and that is what Iran would need to do to resume its compliance with its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal. The fact is that Iran’s nuclear program has been galloping ahead since the previous administration left the nuclear deal in 2018. Iran, as of recently, had 10 times the amount of enriched uranium permitted under the deal, and it has made more ever since that assessment came down. It is spinning cascades of advanced centrifuges that are prohibited by the deal. Its breakout time, which, as you may recall, was at a full year when the deal was in effect, is by most accounts now a matter of months. So it is fair to say that this is a crisis that we inherited. This was a crisis that was precipitated by both sides distancing themselves from the Iran deal."
Press briefing on April 20, 2021: "The talks have been businesslike; they have been positive. Yes, there has been some progress, but there remains a long road ahead. And I think it’s fair to say that we have more road ahead of us than we do in the rearview mirror."
"We welcome the Joint Commission’s establishment of a third working group. The chair of the Joint Commission put out a statement on this working group, so we would refer you there for additional details. Of course, Rob Malley has been leading the delegation and he’s been exploring concrete approaches concerning the steps both Iran and the United States would need to take to return to mutual compliance. Again, these discussions, they have been thorough, they have been thoughtful. Of course, they have not been without difficulty, in part because these talks are indirect, and so, of course, there are going to be logistical hurdles associated with that."
"We have shared ideas among the delegations present. It’s fair to say that there have been no breakthroughs, but we’ve always said that this process, even if it were going quite well, would not be easy or quick, and, of course, that remains true. I think you may have also seen in the statement issued by the Joint Commission that delegations are returning to their respective capitals. That will be true of Rob Malley, who will be returning here in the coming day or so for consultations in the coming days back here in Washington."
"What we have always said, though, is that we are not going to offer unilateral gestures or unilateral concessions. Our goal is to have Iran back into compliance, and what that means is to have Iran once again subject to the most stringent verification and monitoring regime ever negotiated."
"Our goal first and foremost to focus on compliance for compliance. That is what the team in Vienna is focused on right now."
During a press briefing on April 8, 2021: “We believe that Iran’s ballistic missile program, that Iran’s violation of the – Iran’s human rights abuses, that Iran’s support for malign proxies, Iran’s support for terrorism – we believe all of those things pose a profound challenge to us as well as to our regional partners. That is why we will continue, including through sanctions, to push back on those issues.”
“[W]hen it comes to Iran’s nefarious activities – support for terrorism, its human rights abuses, its ballistic missile program, its support for proxies – we will continue to push back on that. Sanctions will continue to be important tools for doing that.”
During a press briefing on April 7, 2021: “The talks so far have been businesslike and they have – they are doing what we envisioned they would do. And again, they are affording us a better understanding of Iran’s thinking, and we hope that in turn, Tehran will leave this round of talks with a better understanding of what we might be prepared to do. The team on the ground in Vienna has had consultations with our European allies as well as with our Russian and Chinese partners. They in turn have met with the Iranian delegation. So in all of this, we have heard more about Iran’s position. Our partners have in turn heard from us more about our position, which they have then relayed to the Iranians. And in short, this is what we had hoped to accomplish at the outset, really nothing more and nothing less.”
“We are prepared to take the steps necessary to return to compliance with the JCPOA, including by lifting sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA. I’m not in a position here to give you chapter and verse on what those might be. That is precisely why we have agreed to engage in diplomacy to this effect. The precise nature of any sanctions relief is the subject of diplomacy.”
During a press briefing on April 5, 2021: “We don’t underestimate the scale of the challenges ahead. These are early days. We don’t anticipate an early or immediate breakthrough, as these discussions we fully expect will be difficult. But we do believe that these discussions with our partners and, in turn, our partners with Iran is a healthy step forward.
“Now, you asked about how these talks will be structured and what they’ll be predicated on. They’ll be structured around working groups that our European – that the EU is going to form with the remaining parties to the JCPOA, and that includes Iran. The primary issues to be discussed are actually quite simple. They’re, on the one hand, the nuclear steps that Iran would need to take in order for Iran to return to that desired end state – and again, that is an end state of compliance with the JCPOA – and the sanctions relief steps that the United States would need to take in order for us to return to compliance with the JCPOA. So again, that is what we aspire over the longer term to achieve, that mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.”
“There’s no denying that we are approaching this with urgency. And we are doing so because even in recent weeks, Iran has continued to take steps away from the JCPOA, and our concern with that is that over time, Iran’s – the so-called breakout time has continued to shrink.”
“Our goal is, of course, to see to it that that breakout time is as long as possible. Our overarching goal is to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is permanently and verifiably constrained, and that on a permanent and verifiable basis, Iran will not be able to obtain a nuclear weapon.”
“We certainly will not entertain unilateral gestures or concessions to get Iran – to induce Iran to a better place. Our goal at these talks in Vienna, again, is to set the stage for that mutual return to compliance. The original formulation is one that still holds today. It’s the limited lifting of sanctions, nuclear sanctions, in return for permanent and verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program.”
“I think we are looking for a better understanding of how we might arrive at that desired end state, and that desired end state remains compliance for compliance. Of course, we haven’t had direct discussions with the Iranians about this. We’ll be working indirectly through primarily our European partners on this. But if we come away from Vienna with a better understanding of how both sides can get there and – the result of which would be how Iran could move back into compliance with the JCPOA and what we would need to do to see to that. I think that’s what we’re after.”
Statement on April 2, 2021: “We have agreed to participate in talks with our European, Russian, and Chinese partners to identify the issues involved in a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA with Iran. These remain early days, and we don’t anticipate an immediate breakthrough as there will be difficult discussions ahead. But we believe this is a healthy step forward.
“These talks will be structured around working groups that the EU is going to form with the remaining participants in the JCPOA, including Iran.
“The primary issues that will be discussed are the nuclear steps that Iran would need to take in order to return to compliance with the terms of the JCPOA, and the sanctions relief steps that the United States would need to take in order to return to compliance as well.
“We do not anticipate presently that there will be direct talks between the United States and Iran through this process, though the United States remains open to them.
“These talks will begin in Austria on April 6.”
State Department Principle Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter
Press briefing on June 2: "Rob Malley is in Vienna. He’ll be returning to Washington pretty soon. And again, talks are ongoing. And they will continue at a pace that’s honestly appropriate to address the significance of the issues that are currently on the table being negotiated right now. And I’ll continue to underscore that discussions like this are always thorough. They’re thoughtful. They’re businesslike even though they are indirect. And of course that’s to be expected. This isn’t going to be a quick or easy process."
Press briefing on May 19: "Special Envoy Robert Malley will be back in Washington for consultations by the end of this week, which, as you know, is the end of the fourth round of discussions that ended today, and the delegation will actually be set to return to Vienna for a fifth round of talks earlier next week. In some of these discussions, it’s really helped to crystallize choices that may be made by Iran as well as by the United States in order to come back into compliance for compliance, as in a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA."
"These last few rounds of discussions have been helpful to crystallize the choices that need to be made by both Iran as well as the United States in order to come back into a mutual return to the compliance of the JCPOA."
Senior State Department Official
Press briefing on June 24, 2021: "We just concluded round six. We will be resuming or coming back for round seven sometime in the not-too-distant future, and we wouldn’t be doing that if the deal were already done. We still have serious differences that have not been bridged, serious differences with Iran over the host of issues, whether it’s the nuclear steps that Iran needs to take to come back into compliance, the sanctions relief that the U.S. will be offering, or the sequence of steps that both sides would be taking. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. And since everything is not agreed, we still don’t have anything nailed down. And there’s still some very important issues that need to be resolved. By the same token, we wouldn’t be going back for a seventh round if we didn’t think that a deal was possible. It remains possible."
"We’ve said already what we thought of the elections and of the new president, the fact that this was a pre-manufactured process that did not reflect the will of the Iranian people. And we also have said what we thought about the background of the president-elect. That said, from our point of view, it does not affect our determination to try to reach a deal or the pace at which we will go about pursuing it."
"We still hope that Iran will extend its technical understanding with the IAEA or prolong the understandings that currently exist. As I said, it would be an issue of real concern if they didn’t. I’m not going to speculate as to what impact it would have on the talks, but we’ve already indicated clearly to Iran that it would be a complicating factor if they did not find a way to continue the understandings with the IAEA."
"This process is not going to be open forever, we mean it. This is not something that we could go on indefinitely. We’ve had serious discussions, and we’ve made progress, and the Iranians have been serious in the talks so far, but we do have differences. And if we can’t bridge them in the foreseeable future, I think we’re going to have to regroup and figure out how we move ahead."
Press briefing on May 6, 2021: "There’s been a lot of reporting about whether this is the final round, whether this is the decisive one, whether a deal needs to be reached in the coming weeks. And I would simply say that we feel that the last three rounds have helped to crystallize the choices that need to be made to – by Iran and by the United States in order to come back into a compliance-for-compliance return – well, returning to mutual compliance with the JCPOA.
"We think that it’s a pretty clear set of choices that needs to be made, because we’re not inventing something new. It is written in the JCPOA. And if Iran makes the political decision that it genuinely wants to return to the JCPOA as the JCPOA was negotiated, then it could be done relatively quickly and implementation could be relatively swift. But we don’t know if Iran has made that decision. We don’t know if they’ve decided that they’re prepared for a strict mutual return to compliance and whether they’re prepared to do so now.
"And so is it possible that we’ll see a mutual return to compliance in the next few weeks, or an understanding of a mutual return to compliance? It’s possible, yes. Is it likely? Only time will tell. Because as I said, this is ultimately a matter of a political decision that needs to be made in Iran."
"Every time I speak to you, we raise the question of the wrongfully detained American citizens in Iran...Tt is the height of cruelty that would be hard to surpass to wrongfully detain citizens simply – American citizens simply for the purpose of using them as pawns in a – to try to extract concessions from the United States or from other countries. But they’ve exceeded that cruelty, Iran did, by leaking information that a deal had been reached, and one could only imagine the suffering that the families of the detained had to endure when they thought for a moment that their loved ones are going to be brought back home. And that’s unspeakable cruelty.
"We are determined to bring them home. We’re determined to do everything we can to bring them home. But we would really hope that Iran would not subject the detainees and their families to what they’ve had to endure the last Sunday when, for a brief moment, they read the news that their loved ones were coming home because a deal had been struck. There is not – there is no deal. We’re doing everything we can to get our citizens home, and we won’t rest until they are."
Press briefing on April 9, 2021: “This is a U.S. assessment but I think it’s the assessment of the other participants, certainly of the Europeans but even the Russians and the Chinese, that the United States team put forward a very serious – very serious ideas, demonstrated a seriousness of purpose coming back into compliance if Iran comes back into compliance, and was – and on a whole, the discussions were productive. They were businesslike. The atmosphere was very constructive.”
“At the same time, a question still remains about whether the seriousness of purpose and the intent of coming back into compliance that the U.S. showed would be reciprocated by Iran. I’d say we saw some signs of it but not – certainly not enough, and there still are question marks about whether Iran has the willingness to do what it will take to take the pragmatic approach that the United States has taken to come back into compliance with its obligations under the deal and a pragmatic approach towards the steps that the U.S. will have to take to come back into compliance with the deal. And I think that coming out of this week, this met expectations but with that question mark that I think still hangs over the proceedings.”
Now, the question mark has to do with … the repeated statements by Iranians that all sanctions imposed since 2017 have to be lifted. And that is not consistent with the deal itself, because under the deal the U.S. retains the right to impose sanctions for non-nuclear reasons, whether it’s terrorism or human rights violations or interference with our elections, et cetera.
“We’ve made it clear publicly, we’ve made it clear to the Iranians indirectly – that our view is that all sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA and inconsistent with the benefits that Iran expects from the JCPOA, we are prepared to lift those if Iran comes back into compliance with its obligations.”
“It’s not as easy a process as it may sound precisely because the Trump administration went out of its way to make it difficult for a successor administration to rejoin the JCPOA. And so they labeled – relabeled things using terrorism designations which were in fact – which had originally been designated on nuclear grounds. And so we have to go through the effort, the painstaking effort, of looking through the sanctions to see which are – which need to be lifted for purposes of rejoining the JCPOA and which need to be kept. And it’s not – it’s not – the label itself doesn’t always give the answer because we have to bear in mind the fact that there was a purposeful and self-avowed intent by the prior administration to take steps to make it harder to build that sanctions wall they spoke about precisely with the political intent to make it harder for any successor that wanted to come back into the deal to do so. So that’s why it’s all the more challenging to look at every sanction and make sure that we are – we’re coming up with the right outcome.”
Unidentified State Department Spokesperson
Remarks on June 23, 2021: "The precise nature and sequence of the sanctions-related steps that the United States would need to take to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA objective is a subject of the talks. As we have said, this has been a long road. We’ve continued to make progress toward defining the contours of an understanding of how we can return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA. During negotiations of this complexity, negotiators try to draft text that capture the main issues, but again, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed."