Iran Delays Return to Vienna Talks

The international diplomacy to revive U.S. and Iranian compliance with the historic 2015 nuclear deal faced delays after Tehran announced on July 17 that it would not return to the negotiating table until after the inauguration of President-elect Raisi in early August. The talks in Vienna between Iran and the world’s six major powers, which were launched in April, have been stalled since June 20. The Biden administration had offered concrete proposals on what U.S. sanctions it would lift to reenter the deal—formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—and what it envisioned Iran would need to do to restrict its nuclear program.

"Verbal controversy between Iranian and U.S. officials," read Reformist Ebtekar Newspaper on July 19 picturing Price (left) and Araghchi (right)
"Verbal controversy between Iranian and U.S. officials," read reformist Ebtekar newspaper on July 19, picturing Price (left) and Araghchi (right)

Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister and the chief negotiator in Vienna, said that the transition period forced the delay. “#Vienna_talks must thus obviously await our new administration,” he tweeted on July 17. “This is what every democracy demands.” Hardline lawmakers were already pushing Raisi to abandon the Vienna talks entirely and seek a different format for diplomacy. The “Vienna format is a worse repetition of JCPOA and is jumping out of the frying pan into the fire,” said Mojtaba Zonnour, a member of Parliament’s national security committee.

The delay also postponed a potential deal for the safe return of American and British detainees in Iran in exchange for Iranian detainees in the United States and Britain. In mid-July, Tehran and Washington traded barbs over who was responsible. Araghchi said that up to 10 prisoners “on all sides” could be released immediately, if the Biden administration made a decision to act. “Keeping such an exchange hostage to political aims achieves neither,” Araghchi tweeted

The United States condemned Araghchi’s remarks as an “outrageous effort to deflect blame” for the delay in diplomatic talks. The State Department denied that any detainee exchange had been agreed. “We see just another cruel effort to raise the hopes of their families,” department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement on July 17. “Araghchi speaks of us taking an agreement hostage when it is his government that has been unjustly detaining four innocent Americans for years.” On July 19, Price reiterated that Washington was open to continuing talks on the nuclear deal “in a productive manner.” But “this offer won't be on the table indefinitely,” he warned.

Since April 2021, there have been six rounds of indirect talks between Iran and the original participants to the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA): Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. Iran did not meet directly with the United States in Vienna but held separate discussions with the five remaining participants. The last round of talks ran from June 12 to June 20 and overlapped with Iran’s election of Raisi – the former judiciary chief and a hardline cleric – to the presidency on June 18. The following is an abridged timeline of the previous rounds of the Vienna talks.

Related Material: Timeline of Diplomacy Under Biden



The negotiations played out over multiple rounds in Vienna

  • 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

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.”

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. Malley told PBS that the U.S. delegation would also push for the return of American detainees in Iran, "whatever happens on the nuclear side, whether we succeed or fail."

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: The first round of 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."

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 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 round 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 15, 2021: The second round of indirect talks resumed in Vienna. In Tehran, President Hassan 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.”

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 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."

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 round 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 2, 2021: White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain denied media reports that Iran had agreed to release four American detainees. "We're working very hard to get them released," he said on CBS Face the Nation. "We raised this with Iran and our interlocutors all the time. But so far there's no agreement to bring these four Americans home."

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.

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.

June 13, 2021: The Russian and Iranian delegations held a bilateral meeting in Vienna "to discuss outstanding problems," Ambassador Ulyanov tweeted. "As always the consultations took place in a warm, constructive and businesslike atmosphere," he added. 

June 18, 2021: Araghchi met with IAEA chief Grossi in Vienna, according to Iran’s envoy to the U.N. nuclear watchdog. The pair discussed the latest developments around the JCPOA negotiations and possible assistance of the [IAEA]," Ambassador Kazem Gharibabadi tweeted

June 20, 2021: The sixth round of talks in Vienna concluded. Delegations returned to their respective capitals for consultations.  

June 21, 2021: President-elect Ebrahim Raisi warned that his administration would take a harder stand on diplomacy with the international community. “The world, particularly the West, should realize that the situation in Iran has changed through the people’s vote,” Raisi told reporters on June 21. He specifically rejected negotiations to limit either Iran’s regional role or its ambitious missile program, although he expressed support for the 2015 nuclear deal brokered with the world’s six major powers. 

June 25, 2021: U.S. Special Envoy to Iran Rob Malley said that he has brought up American detainees in Iran "at every single round of talks" in Vienna. "They were detained as political pawns," he told NPR. "They are being detained for absolutely no good reason."

July 7, 2021: The State Department said that it had "every expectation that there will be a seventh round of talks" in Vienna. "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," department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington D.C.

July 12, 2021: The State Department said that the U.S. delegation was "prepared to return" to Vienna for a seventh round of talks "as soon as they are scheduled." 

July 13, 2021: Iran confirmed that it was negotiating a prisoner exchange with the United States. "‌Because of its humanitarian aims, Iran is ready to exchange all American political prisoners in exchange for the release of all Iranian prisoners who have been detained around the world at the behest of America," government spokesperson Ali Rabiei said.

July 14, 2021: Iran informed European diplomats that it would not be ready to resume negotiations in Vienna until after Ebrahim Raisi was inaugurated as the new president in August, Reuters reported. "We were prepared to continue negotiating, but the Iranians requested more time to deal with their presidential transition," a State Department spokesperson said. 

The State Department warned that the U.S. offer to return to the nuclear deal was not "indefinite" and urged a swift return to negotiations. "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," Ned Price told reporters at a press briefing. "We’re not there yet, but that is why we believe we should...return to Vienna for these talks just as soon as we can.

July 17, 2021: Araghchi said that Iran would not return to Vienna for a seventh round of talks until after Raisi’s inauguration. “We’re in a transition period as a democratic transfer of power is underway in our capital,” he tweeted. State Department spokesman Price condemned the delay as “outrageous.” 

The delay also postponed a potential deal for the safe return of American and British detainees in Iran in exchange for Iranian detainees in the United States and Britain. Araghchi said that up to 10 prisoners “on all sides” could be released immediately, if the Biden administration made a decision to act. But State Department denied that any detainee exchange had been agreed. “We see just another cruel effort to raise the hopes of their families,” Price said


Andrew Hanna, a program specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace, assembled this timeline.