After Long Delay, U.S.-Iran Talks in Qatar Falter

International diplomacy to revive the historic 2015 nuclear deal failed after two days of last-gasp talks conducted indirectly between the United States and Iran by European Union envoy Enrique Mora in Qatar. “Unfortunately, not yet the progress the EU team as coordinator had hoped-for,” Mora tweeted. “We will keep working with even greater urgency to bring back on track a key deal for non-proliferation and regional stability.”

“The Iranians have not demonstrated any sense of urgency, raised old issues that have been settled for months, and even raised new issues that are unrelated to the 2015 nuclear agreement. A deal has been available for some time,” a senior U.S. official said. “If there is a side that needs to take a decision, it’s them — and it’s been them for months.”

Iran is now estimated to be just a few weeks, even as little as 10 days away from having enough enriched uranium to fuel a bomb, a key step in the production of the world’s deadliest weapon. This phase is called the “break-out time.” The other steps to make a bomb include:

  • converting the uranium into a metal that is the explosive core of a bomb
  • encasing the metal with an outer layer of conventional explosives
  • inserting the metal into a small warhead
  • marrying the warhead to a delivery system, such as a ballistic missile
Malley and Bagheri Kani
Robert Malley (left) and Ali Bagheri Kani (right)

These significant engineering challenges would require many months, potentially one to two years. But Iran has made significant technological headway since President Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018 and Tehran began a series of breaches in its obligations 14 months later. 

The talks in Doha were resumed after emergency intervention by E.U foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell, who traveled to Iran on June 24 and won agreement for the Qatar meeting. “We are going to break this stalemate and stop this escalation process,” he said during a press conference with Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on June 25.

The resumption of talks followed a three-month pause in diplomacy between Iran and the world’s six major powers—Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States—held in Vienna. Most technical issues — Iran’s actions to limit its program and U.S. steps to lift sanctions — were resolved during eight rounds of talks that started in April 2021. But the talks stalled in March 2022. The biggest hurdle was a dispute over the status of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group. Tehran demanded that Washington remove the IRGC from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs).

In the week prior to the Doha talks, Iran reportedly dropped its demand to remove the IRGC from the FTO list. But two issues, one on sanctions, were outstanding. Tehran was keen on lifting sanctions on the Khatam al Anbiya Construction Headquarters, the IRGC’s engineering arm that controls a wide range of businesses, an Iranian security official told Reuters. Iran has also long asked for a guarantee that no future U.S. president will renege on the agreement. The Biden administration has said that it cannot guarantee what another president might do given that the JCPOA is not a treaty.

Unlike the year-long diplomacy in Vienna, the proximity talks in Doha did not closely involve the five other world powers. E.U. diplomats shuttled messages between the Iranian team, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani, and the U.S. team, led by Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley.

 

Borrell in Tehran

Borrell and Amir-Abdollahian
Borrell and Amir-Abdollahian in Tehran

In Tehran, Borrell also met with Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) for further talks on breaking the logjam. The SNSC, which brings together powerful decision-makers, plays a key role in steering foreign policy. “Iran has never left the negotiating table and we are still looking for a strong, lasting and reliable agreement,” Shamkhani told Borrell. But he warned that Iran would continue “remedial measures” on its nuclear program “as long as the West’s illegal practices persist.” In July 2019, 14 months after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran began breaching its obligations under the deal.

In a separate press conference later in the day on June 25, Borrell welcomed “good will” from both the Iranian and American sides. “But I still don’t know if both will be able to overcome their respective political differences.”

Borrell also highlighted incentives for Iran to return to full compliance with the deal. The JCPOA “will allow them to go to full potential in terms of economy certainly, in terms of trade, developing energy resources and many other advantages,” he told reporters. “We can increase our partnership with the European Union and with our Member States.”

Borrell’s visit came two days after he and the E.U. coordinator for the nuclear talks, Enrique Mora, met with Malley in Brussels. Mora accompanied Borrell to Tehran.

In a separate press conference later in the day on June 25, Borrell welcomed “good will” from both the Iranian and American sides. “But I still don’t know if both will be able to overcome their respective political differences.” Borrell said that talks would take place in an unnamed Persian Gulf country. Iran’s foreign ministry and the U.S. State Department later confirmed that Doha, Qatar would be the venue.

Borrell also highlighted incentives for Iran to return to full compliance with the deal. The JCPOA “will allow them to go to full potential in terms of economy certainly, in terms of trade, developing energy resources and many other advantages,” he told reporters. “We can increase our partnership with the European Union and with our Member States.”

Borrell’s visit came two days after he and Mora met with Malley in Brussels. Mora accompanied Borrell to Tehran.

For months, Qatar has been trying to bridge gaps between the two sides. Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani visited Tehran in mid-May as part of that effort. On June 28, Malley met with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. Bagheri Kani had a separate meeting with the top Qatari diplomat.

 

Growing Concerns Over Nuclear Program

The window for diplomacy had narrowed in the weeks prior to Borrell’s visit.

First, the U.N. nuclear watchdog warned that it may lose “continuity of knowledge” about the full range of Iran’s nuclear activities. On June 9, Iran began removing monitoring equipment, including 27 cameras, from key nuclear facilities. It appeared to be retaliating after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) overwhelmingly censured Tehran for failing to explain uranium traces at three undeclared sites that date to a covert program before 2003.

Grossi
Grossi with an IAEA camera

If Iran does not restore the cameras by early July, “this would be a fatal blow” to reviving the historic agreement, Rafael Grossi, the director general of the IAEA, warned at a snap press conference on June 9. The IAEA would not be able to give the negotiating parties an updated report on the status of Iran’s activities. The cameras have monitored Iran’s centrifuge production, uranium mines, storage facilities and other aspects of the program. “When we lose this, then it’s anybody’s guess” what the state of Iran’s nuclear program is, Grossi said.

Second, Iran’s nuclear advances increased the risk of proliferation. As of May 30, Iran had stockpiled more than 18 times the amount of enriched uranium allowed under the JCPOA, according to a leaked IAEA report. The growing stockpile means that Iran could amass sufficient fuel for a single nuclear bomb in a few weeks, although experts claim that the so-called “breakout time” has decreased to a mere 10 days — or even less.

Weaponization would still take another one to two years, “but that process would be more difficult to detect and disrupt once Iran moved the weapons-grade uranium from its declared enrichment facilities,” wrote Kelsey Davenport, an expert on nuclear weapons at the Arms Control Association.

Iran has long and repeatedly insisted that it does not seek a nuclear weapon, although the IAEA and U.S. intelligence reported that Tehran had a nascent weapons program that it abandoned in 2003. In late 2021, both U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies reported that the Islamic Republic had not yet made the pivotal political decision to produce a bomb — and incur the possible consequences. The following are remarks from E.U. and Iranian officials delivered on June 25.

 

European Union

Josep Borrell
High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy

Remarks at a press conference with Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian: 

“My visit has one main objective: it was to break the current dynamic of escalation and to break the stalemate of the negotiations of the JCPOA. It was of paramount importance to give a new momentum to bring the JCPOA on track.

“On my request, you invited me to come and discuss deeply of the reasons that have created this stalemate. And I am very happy, as the Minister has said, and thank you for that Minister, that we will resume the talks on the JCPOA in the coming days. The coming days means the coming days. I mean quickly, immediately. And so, we are going to break this stalemate and stop this escalation process in which we were. 

“Allow me to remember that, as Coordinator of the JCPOA talks, I decided to pause the Vienna talks in March [2022]. In March, I decided to stop for a while because I had put on the table a text with very few open questions. And these questions were subject to be addressed by Iranians and the U.S. because the other members – China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.K., the other parties of the JCPOA - agreed with my assessment and the pause. But a pause is not three months. March, April, May, June - that's more than a pause. It has to be finished. Three months have passed, and we need to speed up our work. And I am very happy and thankful for the decision that the Minister has already announced, taken by both of us here in Tehran, that the talks will resume. There are decisions that have to be taken in Tehran and in Washington. But we agreed today that this visit will be followed by the resumption of negotiations also between Iran and U.S., facilitated by my team, to try to solve the last outstanding issues. 

“I cannot underline the importance of reaching an agreement on the basis of the text they put on the table, and how important it is for all of us, for Iran, for the world - for the Europeans, certainly, but for the world as a whole - to have an agreement on the JCPOA. Especially now, because we live in a different world. 

“Since February [2022], we live in a different world. Four months ago, just before we decided to pause in our negotiations, Russia unleashed a brutal aggression against Ukraine. And this is a tectonic change in the world of geopolitics. This is a major breach of [the] United Nations’ principles, and a big change in the relationship between States.

“In such [an] environment, the conclusion of our landmark agreement is more important than ever. The world needs security and stability. And the world will be a much [more] secure place if we have a deal that can ensure for Iran full benefits, full economic benefits of the agreement, and at the same time to address the concerns of the international community about non-proliferation, global security and regional stability. 

“And this brings me, allow me Minister, to another point of our discussion today: it is our thinking and our new approach - of the European Union - with respect to the Gulf region. We are offering to the countries in the region a new and much deeper relationship, based on a broad agenda that includes the global issues - green transition, digital transition, but also trade and regional security. And I cannot conceive such, as a regional approach, without you, without Iran. Nobody can talk about the stability in the Gulf region without taking into account Iran - the biggest country in the region and a great potential provider of energy. But for that, again, we need to go back to the full implementation of the JCPOA.  

“We want to stress our bilateral relations, Minister, although it will deserve another visit to Tehran. This [visit] was focusing on JCPOA, and I will be more than happy to come back to Tehran to go deeper in the bilateral relations between the European Union and Iran. Because I am convinced that we have an enormous potential in many fields, starting from trade - including oil and gas - to many other issues. We are a big market, you are a big market, and our economies are strongly complementary [with] each other. That is why we need the JCPOA back on track. We have to solve the non-proliferation concerns of the international community, and the badly needed U.S. sanctions lifting, for Iran to reach its full economic potential.  

“We discussed about other issues, you mentioned them - some consular issues of mutual concern - and I think that we will have to continue discussing. But today has been a positive meeting because we decided to resume in the coming days the Iranians’ deal negotiations [JCPOA negotiations], which were stalled for the last three months.”

 

In a second press conference:

“Over the past weeks, I have been almost every day in telephone contact with the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs [Hossein Amir-Abdollahian], my counterpart, discussing on the stalled JCPOA negotiations.

“We stopped them in March for a short pause, and three months later we are still stalled. 

“So finally, he [Amir-Abdollahian] invited [me] to come to Tehran. He asked me to come to Tehran to deblock the situation, to see if it was possible to the deblock the situation. That is why I came yesterday night - and I am leaving right now because you know that next week [will] start the NATO Summit in Madrid - to try to revive the diplomatic path and see what we can do to give a new push for the talks and break the current escalation. 

“Because you know, the pause in March. Then, came this resolution of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Then, came the Iranian’s decision on the nuclear side. Then, came the sanctions from the United States.  We have to stop this escalation. And I am happy to say that after long meetings and discussions with the Foreign Minister, and also with the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council [Ali Shamkhani] - we just finished some minutes ago the last meeting -,  we managed to deblock the situation.  And in the coming days - and actually in the coming days, I mean, immediately -, we will restart the discussions we [had] stopped for the last three months. And the United States and Iran will talk, not directly but with a facilitation by me and my team as Coordinator [of the JCPOA negotiations]. 

“So that is good. We start again the talks, we deblock the deadlock and let’s start again the discussions.

“I had the opportunity to explain to my Iranian counterparts that the JCPOA will allow them to go to full potential in terms of economy certainly, in terms of trade, developing energy resources and many other advantages. We can increase our partnership with the European Union and with our Member States. But for this, the JCPOA has to be fully operational and fully implemented.

“So, let's start working again. In a new geopolitical environment, because the aggression of Russia against Ukraine has changed completely the geopolitical environment, and also the energy situation of the world. This is a tectonic change that will last, will have lasting consequences. [It] will require adaptation because, in Europe, we will start a quick race to get rid of the Russian oil and gas. And this will require new sources on one side, and on the other side, an increased development of renewables. Everything will be changed. And I understand, from my Iranian counterparts, that they will go to this meeting with the best of the wills. 

“We also have the opportunity to raise some urgent bilateral issues from the consular side which are of concern to us, and also about the detention of European citizens here in Iran. There is a certain growing number of cases, we discussed about it and we urged solutions for those cases. But to summarize, the negotiations were stalled - no prospects of restarting - and thanks to these discussions, in the coming days they will start again, with close contacts between the United States and the Iranians. 

“That is good news, and let's hope that this will bring the JCPOA again on track.” 

Q: “In your briefing, you talked about the situation and how it has changed after Russia attacked Ukraine. How do you think this impacts the talks?”

A: “Certainly, the war is changing everything. It is changing the geopolitical context. It is changing the energy context. It does not make the deal more difficult, I do not think it is going to make the deal more difficult. At a certain moment, Russia was very much against the deal because, certainly, Iran will come to the oil market and provide an alternative source of oil. But after the context that the Iranians themselves had with the Russians, Russia has withdrawn any objection to the deal. That is good. Russia is not objecting the deal. They were at the beginning of the year, [but] no longer. No, I do not think the war is making things more difficult, but it is making things more necessary. 

“The world today is much more insecure. This war is going to jeopardize a lot of things. It is creating price increases on energy and food. In many countries, mainly in Africa, this will create social unrest. So, the more supply of oil, the better for the energy prices. In order to fight against price increases, you have to increase the supply. So, the deal would be good from the point of view of crisis stabilization on energy. It would be good from the point of view of increasing security. It will be good from the point of view of Iran becoming a member of the international community, [being] more active, participating in trade - [on] both sides, exporting oil [and] importing goods -, and more committed to the international security. So, I do not think the war makes it more difficult. It makes it more necessary.”
 
Q: “The question is: why now? You mentioned it a lot, three months is not a pause, three months is much more than a pause. Why not last month? Why not before the resolution or before the disconnection of the cameras in Iranian sites? What has changed now? That you are here, and everything is being settled, the negotiations are resuming – that is big news. But what needed to be done before this? Why [is it] that all the sides waited three months for this to happen? What has changed now? What is the new thing that is happening? Can you tell us anything about that? 

A: “You know, this is a cumulative process. First, you stop because the delegations have to go back home in order to get guidance from the authorities. Then, the guidance is being delayed. And then certainly, the war in Ukraine has put, [for] all of us, the attention on someone else. The United States and the Europeans, we were, in March [and] April [2022], very much concentrated on what was happening in Ukraine. And then came this resolution which was a warning of the international community. The resolution was taken two or three weeks ago. It was a quick warning. And then, the typical process of escalation: ‘I do not like what you are doing, so I do something from my side, and then I do something from my side because they do not like what you do.’ 

“And I took stock of the situation, and I got in touch with my Iranian counterpart - and with my American counterpart also - saying ‘Look, if we continue like this, the game is over.’ If we let the cameras to be switched off for one or two more weeks, then the International Atomic Energy [Agency] will lose control of what is happening and we will not be able to sit again at the table. So, this is an in-extremis act from my side. And I do not want the deal to derail, definitely. 

“And my Iranian counterpart said: ‘If you want to discuss, [I am] ready to receive you and see what we can do. We cannot solve it by phone.’ That is why, I jumped [to come here] for 24 hours. I could have done it before the resolution, but the sense of urgency was still not there. Now it was, certainly. And I am very happy to have done this jump to Tehran for 24 hours because now, from immediately after this meeting, the negotiations will restart.”

Q: “Both Iranian and even U.S. officials say that they have a strong will in reaching a deal. But my question is: How do you envision the future of the JCPOA? How far is the final point in the agreement?” 

A: “How far is the final point? Do you mean, the final agreement? I cannot tell you a precise date. Let's see what will happen next week. I have to test the temperature of the next session of discussion. I cannot predict. I am activist by nature. I think that if you want something, you have to push for it. We are pushing for it. I appreciated [the] good will from [the] Iranian side. There is also good will from the American side. They were very happy that I came here. But I still do not know if both will be able to overcome their respective political difficulties. Because now we are talking about political difficulties. On the economic and nuclear side, I think the agreement is there. But at the end, it is also political consideration from both sides, and I cannot foresee when and how they would be overcome.” 

 

Iran

Foreign Minster Hossein Amir-Abdollahian

Remarks during a joint press conference with Borrell:

“We are ready to resume the Vienna talks within the next days.”  

“We’ll try to resolve the issues and differences... what is important for the Islamic Republic of Iran is economically benefiting from the agreement reached in 2015 in full.”

 

Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani

Remarks in a meeting with Borrell:

“Iran's remedial measures in the nuclear sector are merely a legal and rational reaction to U.S. unilateralism and Europe's inaction and will continue as long as the West's illegal practices persist.

“Iran has never left the negotiating table and we are still looking for a strong, lasting and reliable agreement.”

“Iran does not favor an agreement that fails to meet the two above-mentioned principles in securing a reliable guarantee from the U.S. and Europe.”

“The language of force cannot be used in addressing a country that has overcome the most difficult conditions of sanctions with vigorous resistance and the sympathy and support of its people.”

 

Photo Credits: Malley and Bagheri by Dean Calma/IAEA (CC BY 2.0); Borrell with Amir-Abdollahian and Shamkhani via Fars News Agency CC BY 4.0; Grossi via Dean Calma / IAEA (CC BY 2.0)

 

Updated