From April 6 to 9, 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.” After the first week of talks, the parties reconvened on April 15.
The goal of the Vienna talks was reportedly to draft two agreements -- one with the United States and one with Iran -- to detail steps each would take to restore full compliance with the nuclear pact. But U.S. and Iranian diplomats would 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.
Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley
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 Spokesperson Jen Psaki
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
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.”
Senior State Department Official
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.”