Iran Vows to Return to Talks in November

On October 27, Iran’s lead negotiator announced a return to nuclear talks with the world’s six major powers by the end of November. Ali Bagheri, the new deputy foreign minister, tweeted the announcement after meeting in Brussels with Enrique Mora, the E.U. coordinator for the talks.

In response, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the Europeans and U.S. negotiators would determine next steps. “Our framing continues to be compliance for compliance,” she told reporters.   

Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani

A return to negotiations in Vienna, however, is no guarantee that the diplomatic process will resolve the deep differences between Tehran and Washington over both substance and sequencing. On substance, Iran wants guarantees that the United States will never reimpose sanctions if it returns to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, while the Biden administration says it cannot guarantee what another president might do.

On sequencing, Iran wants the United States to lift sanctions before Tehran reverses breaches begun in 2019, 14 months after the Trump administration abandoned the deal and reimposed sanctions.  The Biden administration has stipulated that both countries must simultaneously return to their commitments in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Bagheri’s comment came one day after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported new uranium enrichment activity in Iran. On October 25, the Islamic Republic began feeding uranium gas enriched to 20 percent into a single IR-6 centrifuge at the Natanz facility outside Isfahan. Iran was already enriching small amounts of uranium to 60 percent purity—far above the cap of 3.67 percent set by the JCPOA—at Natanz. Iran could learn more about the enrichment process by feeding advanced IR-6 centrifuges, which are faster and more efficient than previous models. Iran was not retaining the enriched uranium, the agency noted, but the move prompted the IAEA to “increase the frequency and intensity of its safeguards activities” at the facility. Uranium enriched to 90 percent or above is considered weapons-grade.

IAEA chief Rafael Grossi

The IAEA monitoring program in Iran is “no longer intact,” Rafael Grossi, the IAEA chief, warned on October 22. Iran has not allowed the watchdog to repair cameras that monitor centrifuge production at the Tesa Karaj facility outside Tehran. Iran has alleged that Israel sabotaged in an explosion at the Tesa Karaj facility in June. One camera was damaged, and another was destroyed.

Iran’s decision to limit IAEA access “hasn’t paralyzed what we are doing there, but damage has been done, with a potential of us not being able to reconstruct the picture, the jigsaw puzzle,” Grossi told NBC News on October 22. If and when the JCPOA is restored, the world’s six major powers will need to understand the status of Iran’s program, he said.

From April to June 2021, Iran and the world’s six major powers held six rounds of talks on restoring the 2015 nuclear deal. Diplomacy stalled in June during Iran’s presidential campaign and the political transition as Ebrahim Raisi took office and appointed his cabinet in August. The two main issues in the talks—lifting U.S. sanctions and reversing Iran’s nuclear program—are outlined below, followed by three scenarios for renewed diplomacy and a timeline of diplomacy under the Biden administration.


Iran’s Nuclear Advances

Tehran continued to comply with its obligations for more than a year after President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA. But in July 2019, it began breaching the agreement in response to Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Iran’s breaches were initially incremental and calibrated. After the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the father of Iran's nuclear program, Parliament passed a new law in December 2020 requiring the government to accelerate its nuclear program.

By September 2021, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran had met several of the law’s requirements, Kelsey Davenport told The Iran Primer, including:

  • Enriching to 20 percent uranium-235,
  • Installing and enriching uranium with 1,000 advanced IR-2 centrifuges,
  • Installing equipment to produce uranium metal, and
  • Reducing compliance with the JCPOA’s monitoring provisions by suspending the additional protocol to Iran’s safeguard agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other verification measures specific to the nuclear deal.

Several provisions of the law must be met before the end of 2021, including:

  • Stockpiling 120 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent, and
  • Installing and operating 1,000 IR-6 centrifuges.

Uranium stockpileIran is on target to meet the 20 percent uranium stockpile requirement, but its installation of IR-6 centrifuges has slowed, perhaps due to attacks targeting centrifuge production facilities. As of September 2021, Iran had installed fewer than 200 IR-6 machines.

When Iran was fully implementing its JCPOA commitments, its breakout time—or the time needed to enrich enough uranium to make one nuclear bomb—was about 12 months. But Iran’s enrichment and stockpiling of uranium above 3.67 percent, as well as use of additional IR-1 centrifuges and more advanced centrifuges, cut its breakout time significantly. By September 2021, Iran’s breakout time was about two months, with worst-case scenario estimates of as little as one month. 

If Iran made the political decision to pursue nuclear weapons, Western and Israeli intelligence estimates assess that it would need about two years to build a bomb. After producing enough fissile material for a weapon, Iran would need to convert the material to metal and fabricate it into the core of a device. The uranium metal would then need to be fitted with an explosive package. If Iran planned to deliver its nuclear weapons via ballistic missile, which is the most likely scenario, it would have to fit the warhead to the tip of that system.

Centrifuges at the Fordow facility
Centrifuges at the Fordo facility

Since 2007, the U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Iran has the necessary capabilities to build a nuclear weapon, but the country has never tested a nuclear device. And Iran has repeatedly said that it does not intend to build one. 

The E3 (France, Germany and Britain) and the United States have raised concerns about Iran’s production of uranium metal and highlighted its relevance to nuclear weapons development. But as of fall 2021, Iran had not resumed key activities to build a nuclear weapon. In an interview published on October 1, Israel’s head of military intelligence, Major General Tamir Hayman, said that he saw “no progress” on a weapons project and that Iran would need two years to build a nuclear weapon. Iran’s enrichment of uranium to higher levels is “disturbing,” but it is “not heading toward a bomb right now,” he added.   


U.S. Sanctions

The most complicated issue in U.S.-Iran diplomacy is the overlapping network of U.S. sanctions that punish the Islamic Republic on multiple counts, from activities related to the nuclear program and support of terrorism to missile proliferation and human rights abuses. Some of Iran’s major institutions, including the Central Bank and the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), are sanctioned both for their roles supporting the nuclear program and for aiding terrorist attacks by proxy militias.

The Biden administration has vowed to lift the sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program – as promised in the 2015 deal – if Tehran, in turn, rolls back recent breaches of the nuclear deal. The complicating factor in current and future diplomacy is that key Iranian institutions and individuals could remain sanctioned for secondary reasons, thus not providing Iran the economic relief it seeks. On April 7, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said that the United States was prepared to lift sanctions that are “inconsistent with the JCPOA” but did not provide further details.

The issue of sanctions was complicated when President Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear deal—brokered by the world’s six major powers over two years of intense diplomacy—in 2018. He then reimposed earlier sanctions from the Bush and Obama administrations that had been lifted when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was implemented in 2016. He also took the unusual step of sanctioning Iran’s banking and oil sectors for funding the Revolutionary Guards and extremist proxies across the Middle East. The Trump administration imposed sanctions on more than 1,500 individuals and entities.

The Iranian delegation to the April 2021 talks included representatives from the Central Bank of Iran and the Petroleum Ministry, which reflected Tehran’s interest in sanctions relief. The following is a list of major banking, shipping and oil institutions sanctioned by the Trump administration under multiple authorities.


Central Bank of Iran 

Central Bank of Iran

The Central Bank, established in 1960, is the primary conduit for oil sales transactions, a key source of Iran’s foreign exchange. But since 2018, U.S. sanctions have made it hard for Iran to sell its oil abroad and be paid in hard currency because the bank was cut from the international financial system. The bank has been unable to repatriate tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets in foreign banks due to U.S. sanctions. The following is a timeline of U.S. sanctions on the Central Bank:      

In February 2012, the Obama administration sanctioned all Iranian financial institutions, including the Central Bank, to pressure Tehran to negotiate limits on its nuclear program.

• In January 2016, sanctions on the Central Bank were lifted as part of the JCPOA.

In May 2018, Trump abandoned the JCPOA.

In November 2018, five months after withdrawing from the JCPOA, the Trump administration reimposed sanctions on the Central Bank.

In September 2019, the Trump administration sanctioned the bank for facilitating funding for Iran’s links to terrorism. 


National Iranian Oil Company

National Iranian Oil Company headquarters in Tehran

Established in 1951 after Iran nationalized its oil industry, the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) is responsible for exporting oil and gas as well as exploration, drilling, production and research and development. It is overseen by the Ministry of Petroleum. NIOC was the ninth-largest state-owned oil company in the world, based on 2019 revenues. Iran has fourth-largest oil reserves and the second-largest gas reserves in the world. The following is a timeline of sanctions on NIOC:

In November 2012, the Obama administration sanctioned NIOC for weapons of mass destruction proliferation by providing financial, material or other support to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). 

• In January 2016, sanctions on NIOC were lifted as one of the incentives for Iran to agree to limits on its nuclear program and as part of the JCPOA. 

In May 2018, Trump abandoned the JCPOA.

In November 2018, five months after withdrawing from the JCPOA, the Trump administration reimposed sanctions on NIOC.

In October 2020, the Trump administration sanctioned NIOC for facilitating terrorism through financial support to the IRGC, especially its external operations arm, the Qods Force.


National Petrochemical Company

Established in 1964, the National Petrochemical Company (NPC) is a subsidiary of the Ministry of Petroleum. Petrochemical exports, including chemicals, fertilizers, fuel and polymers, are the second-largest source of government revenue after crude oil. As of early 2021, petrochemical exports accounted for nearly a third of non-oil exports. The NPC has historically been the second largest producer and exporter of petrochemicals in the Middle East, after Saudi Arabia. The following is a timeline of sanctions on the NPC:

In June 2010, the Obama administration sanctioned the NPC to pressure Tehran to curb its nuclear and missile programs. The NPC was among 22 companies determined to be owned or controlled by the Iranian government.

In January 2016, sanctions on the NPC were lifted as one of the incentives for Iran to agree to limits on its nuclear program and as part of the JCPOA.

In May 2018, Trump abandoned the JCPOA.

In November 2018, five months after withdrawing from the JCPOA, the Trump administration reimposed sanctions on the NPC.

In October 2020, the Trump administration sanctioned the NPC for facilitating terrorism by being controlled by the Ministry of Petroleum, which generated revenue for the IRGC.


National Iranian Tanker Company

Established in 1955, the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) transports Iranian crude oil for export and stockpiles oil in floating storage units. It is a subsidiary of the NIOC. As of 2019, NITC had a fleet of at least 54 tankers, including 38 Very Large Crude Carriers and eight Suezmaxes. NITC tankers began shipping millions of barrels of oil to Venezuela starting in May 2019. The following is a timeline of sanctions on NITC:

In July 2012, the Obama administration sanctioned NITC, 58 vessels and 27 affiliates under helping Iran evade sanctions.

• In January 2016, sanctions on NITC were lifted as one of the incentives for Iran to agree to limits on its nuclear program and as part of the JCPOA.

In May 2018, Trump abandoned the JCPOA.

In November 2018, five months after withdrawing from the JCPOA, the Trump administration reimposed sanctions on NITC.

In June 2020, the Treasury sanctioned captains working for NITC for shipping gasoline to Venezuela.

In October 2020, the Treasury sanctioned NITC for facilitating funding for Iran’s links to terrorism. It accused NITC personnel of coordinating with Hezbollah on logistics and pricings for oil shipments to Syria.


Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines

Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines containers 

Established in 1967, the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) is the national shipping company. It started under the name Aria Shipping Lines with six vessels. As of 2019, it operated a fleet of 115 vessels but many were old and unsafe for travel. IRISL has dozens of affiliates it uses to evade U.S. and international sanctions. The company has falsified documents to conceal military-related shipments from maritime authorities. The following is a timeline of sanctions on IRISL:

In September 2008, the George W. Bush administration sanctioned IRISL and 18 affiliates for shipping cargo used in Iran’s proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In 2010, the Obama administration sanctioned dozens more IRISL affiliates as part of sanctions on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.

• In January 2016, sanctions on IRISL and its affiliates were lifted as one of the incentives for Iran to agree to limits on its nuclear program as part of the JCPOA.

In May 2018, Trump abandoned the JCPOA.

In November 2018, five months after withdrawing from the JCPOA, the Trump administration reimposed sanctions on IRISL and its affiliates.

In September 2019, the Treasury sanctioned an “oil-for-terror” shipping network that included IRISL-linked vessels.

In December 2019, the State Department designated IRISL for transporting material used in Iran’s missile program. The designations took effect after 180 days to allow Iran to find alternative ways to ship humanitarian supplies.

In June 2020, the Treasury sanctioned captains working for IRISL for shipping gasoline to Venezuela.


Private banks

In November 2018, the Trump administration reimposed punitive economic sanctions on most major public and private Iranian banks. Many private banks had been sanctioned by previous administrations for money laundering and sanctions evasion. U.S. sanctions cut them off from the global financial system. The difference between public and private banks in complicated in Iran because many private banks are owned by official or military organizations, while other banks are reportedly controlled by private conglomerates or charitable foundations (bonyads) that are also linked to the government.

Between 2018 and 2020, the Treasury took the additional – and unusual – step of sanctioning banks for facilitating funding for terrorism; it cited malign activities by the Revolutionary Guards and proxy militias across the Middle East. In 2020, President Trump’s Executive Order 13902 further authorized the Treasury to sanction any Iranian financial institution. U.S. sanctions were intended to have a chilling effect on foreign transactions with Iran. The following is the timeline of U.S. sanctions on private banks: 

In February 2012, the Obama administration froze the assets of all Iranian financial institutions held in the United States to pressure Tehran to negotiate limits on its nuclear program.

In January 2016, the Obama administration lifted sanctions on dozens of Iranian banks as part of the Iran nuclear deal.

In May 2018, Trump abandoned the JCPOA.

In October 2018, the Treasury sanctioned several banks—including Bank Mellat, Parsian Bank, Sina Bank and Mehr Eqtesad Bank--for supporting the Basij under its counterterrorism authorities. Mehr Eqtesad had not previously been sanctioned.

In November 2018, the Trump administration reimposed sanctions on 50 Iranian banks and their subsidiaries, including Amin Investment Bank, Arian Bank, Ayandeh Bank, Bank Kargoshaee, Bank Maskan, Bank Melli, Bank Sepah, Bank Tejarat, Day Bank and Future Bank.

In October 2020, the Treasury sanctioned 18 major banks to deny Iran funding for its nuclear program, missile development or support for terrorism. The sanctioned banks included Amin Investment Bank, Bank Keshavarzi Iran, Bank Maskan, Bank Refah Kargaran, Bank-e Shahr, Eghtesad Novin Bank, Gharzolhasaneh Resalat Bank, Hekmat Iranian Bank, Iran Zamin Bank, Islamic Regional Cooperation Bank, Karafarin Bank, Khavarmianeh Bank (also known as Middle East Bank), Mehr Iran Credit Union Bank, Pasargad Bank, Saman Bank, Sarmayeh Bank, Tosee Taavon Bank (also known as Cooperative Development Bank), and Tourism Bank.


Three Scenarios for Nuclear Talks

Ali Vaez outlined three scenarios for The Iran Primer

President Raisi

Scenario 1: President Raisi's team agrees to a deal that is marginally better for Iran than the package that was on the table in June. Although they were close to their bottom lines, both sides probably still have some maneuvering space.

If they are willing to compromise, this would be the least costly option. It would provide the Raisi administration with an early political win, which could be framed as their victory given that the hardliners now control all levers of power and dominate the country’s media. It would also constitute a much needed economic reprieve amid a confluence of crises that Iran is facing, ranging from economic stagnation and social unrest to the raging COVID-19 pandemic.

The Biden administration, which has had a major setback in Afghanistan, would benefit not just by defusing a simmering nuclear crisis, but also by potentially paving the ground for de-escalation in Iraq and in the Gulf. This would allow Washington to shift its focus to the larger challenge of great power competition with China and Russia. The parties could then try to achieve a better-for-better deal that is more satisfactory for both sides and thus more stable than the JCPOA.

Scenario 2: Raisi's team drives a hard bargain and makes maximalist demands that are unacceptable to the United States and European powers. This is the most likely outcome because the Iranian leadership seems to believe that time is on its side. Iran sees an advantage in the exponential growth of its nuclear program. It also views the U.S. leverage from sanctions as past its peak and now at the point of diminishing returns. And Iran thinks that the West has no appetite for military confrontation. This calculus is underpinned by an optimistic view on Iran’s ability to remain afloat as its economy has stabilized and oil exports to China hover around a million barrels per day. 

Amir-Abdollahian was nominated foreign minister
Raisi's foreign minister nominee Hossein Amir-Abdollahian

In this scenario, Iran would insist that the United States lift all the sanctions that were imposed and reimposed since 2017, provide the sanctions relief upfront, and allow several months for Tehran to verify its effectiveness. Iran would also demand guarantees. It is not hard to predict what comes next as we have seen this movie before.

In 2005, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power, Iran pursued a similar confrontational approach, which led to 10 years of mutual escalation in what I call the race of sanctions against centrifuges. It was a lose-lose game for both sides and brought them to the brink of military confrontation.

Renegotiating the package that has been coming together in six rounds of talks is not going to shift Washington’s bottom lines or core demands. But it risks bringing down the JCPOA. This is primarily because there are pressure points on the timeline. The United States and European powers are increasingly concerned that Iran’s advances are approaching the point of irreversibility, making the existing agreement, even if fully restored, insufficient. At the same time, Iran is in a standoff with the IAEA over access for its inspectors and outstanding issues with regards to Iran’s past nuclear activities. If these issues are not resolved before the end of 2021, another referral to the U.N. Security Council is almost certain.

Scenario 3: Raisi's team seeks to negotiate a new deal to replace the JCPOA. A consensus seems to have emerged among the Iranian hardliners, who now control all levers of power, that the JCPOA was flawed from the beginning and that its restoration is futile as it will only produce the same outcome: depriving Iran of its nuclear leverage with an empty promise of economic incentives, followed by a return of sanctions. This approach has a lot of appeal to those in Tehran and Washington who deem the JCPOA inadequate and seek a more advantageous agreement, or JCPOA-plus. 

Tellingly, Kayhan, the hardline daily whose editor in chief is appointed by the Supreme Leader, recently wrote: “That the JCPOA must change is the one issue upon which Iran and the U.S. converge.” But the path to a new deal is likely to pass through a risky escalation. 

Iran-US flagsIran might up the nuclear ante further, prompting the United States to impose more coercive measures, both looking for more leverage ahead of a return to talks. Iran, as it has already indicated in the six rounds of talks in Vienna, would want more sanctions relief, including from U.S. primary sanctions. They were the main obstacle to the Iranian banking sector’s return to the U.S. dollar-dominated global financial system after the United States lifted sanctions in 2016. Iran would also want compensation for damages incurred during the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign. 

Western governments, in turn, would want longer-term restrictions and more rigorous monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program. This scenario could ultimately lead to a JCPOA-plus, but the danger is that it could escalate out of control rather than foster a resolution.

The path to a JCPOA-plus does not need to be so treacherous. One option to avoid the escalatory cycle would be to quickly strike an arrangement that amounts to a JCPOA-minus. Iran could agree to freeze proliferation-sensitive activities, including uranium enrichment above 3.67 percent, advanced centrifuge work, and uranium metal production. In return, the Western powers could accept an agreed-upon level of oil exports and/or partial access to its frozen assets.

An interim arrangement could cap the immediate nuclear proliferation crisis, deliver economic reprieve for Iran, and buy time for the parties to negotiate parameters of a more-for-more JCPOA-plus that addresses their broader demands. One pertinent question here is whether such an interim agreement would trigger the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) of 2015 – a U.S. law requiring any new deal with Iran to be subject to a congressional review. But a JCPOA-minus is not a new deal, it is a waystation toward the original agreement.


Timeline of Diplomacy

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.

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.

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.”

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: 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 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.”

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."

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 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 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 23, 2021: Iran said that it would allow its monitoring deal with the IAEA to expire on June 24 before deciding whether to extend it. "After the expiration of the agreement's deadline, Iran's Supreme National Security Council (will) decide about the agreement's extension at its first meeting," presidential chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi said. 

June 24, 2021: Iran's monitoring agreement with the IAEA expired.

June 25, 2021: The U.N. nuclear watchdog demanded an "immediate response" from Iran on whether it would retain data collected at declared nuclear sites. Iran had yet to respond to the agency's questions, Grossi told the IAEA's board of directors. Secretary of State Blinken warned that expiration of the IAEA's monitoring agreement could complicate efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. "The concern has been communicated to Iran and needs to be resolve," he told reporters in Paris.

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."

June 28, 2021: Iran has not made a decision "negative or positive" on whether to extend a monitoring agreement with the United Nation's (U.N.) nuclear watchdog, a foreign ministry's spokesperson told reporters. The government had also not decided whether it would delete data and camera footage collected by the International Atomic Energy Agency during the past four months, the spokesperson added.

July 6, 2021: Britain, France and Germany expressed "grave concern" that Iran had increased its production of enriched uranium metal. "Iran has no credible civilian need for uranium metal R&D and production, which are a key step in the development of a nuclear weapon," the three European parties to the 2015 nuclear deal said in a joint statement. The move was "more concerning at a time when no date has been set" for the next round of talks in Vienna.

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.

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.

July 20, 2021: Iran's Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) rejected a draft agreement over returning to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, government spokesman Ali Rabiei said. A SNSC committee "decided the draft agreement is incompatible with the law passed by parliament in December" that ordered Iran to increase enrichment levels to 20 percent and end snap nuclear inspections, he told reporters.

But a different spokesman, working directly for the SNSC, denied that any agreement existed in the first place. "Contrary to what has been said, the committee has fundamentally dealt with a number of important issues on which the Vienna talks have failed to reach an agreement due to the bullying of the [United States] and some European parties," SNSC secretariat spokesman Keyvan Khosravi said. "Saying that there was an agreement or disagreement about something which is not real isn’t relevant."

July 29, 2021: Secretary Blinken warned Iran against advancing its nuclear program and dragging out talks. “We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely,” he told reporters in Kuwait. “At some point the gains achieved by the JCPOA cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it's undertaken with regard to its nuclear program.” 

July 30, 2021: In one of his last acts as foreign minister, Zarif published a 204-page book titled “Documenting Six Years of Western (Non-) Implementation of the ‘Iran Nuclear Deal.’” The book included his last letter to U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, dated July 20, in which he accused the United States and its “European accomplices” of failing to comply with the deal. Zarif claimed that the Britain, France, Germany and the United States were using economic pressure and blackmail to renegotiate provisions of the agreement, including the timetable for restrictions on Iran to expire.   

August 4, 2021: Deputy Foreign Minister Araghchi met with E.U. coordinator Mora in Tehran to discuss Afghanistan, E.U.-Iran relations and the nuclear talks in Vienna. Mora's "key priority is to resume negotiations in Vienna and facilitate the way back to full JCPOA implementation," E.U. external affairs chief Josep Borrell said

August 5, 2021: E.U. coordinator Mora attended the inauguration of President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran.

October 27, 2021: Iran's lead nuclear negotiator announced a return to talks with the world’s six major powers by end of November. Ali Bagheri, the new deputy foreign minister, tweeted the announcement after meeting in Brussels with Enrique Mora, the E.U. coordinator for the talks.


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