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- It rescinded the Trump administration’s letter invoking “snapback sanctions” at the United Nations.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