Iran nuclear talks resume, but time is running out to strike a deal

VIENNA – The most recent round of talks on the nuclear deal with Iran started on Monday after a brief pause, with pressure being put on Tehran to “make the negotiations really urgent” or to risk losing any chance of reviving the deal.

Some officials close to the talks said the window for negotiations on a return to the 2015 accord could close in late January or early February, while others claimed there was no set date.

Diplomats from the UK, France and Germany noted last week that while they did not want to set an “artificial deadline for talks”, they had “weeks instead of months” to restore the deal. A US State Department spokesman said Iran must “increase real urgency in Vienna.”

The nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has been life sustaining since former US President Donald Trump gave it up in 2018. The deal between Iran and the world powers limits Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting crippling economic sanctions. Iran insists that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only and has no intention of building a nuclear weapon.

The fact that the USA and Iran are still not talking directly to each other in Vienna doesn’t make things any easier.

Instead, Enrique Mora, the high-ranking EU official coordinating the talks, is being forced to back and forth possible compromise solutions between Robert Malley, the US special envoy to Iran, and Ali Bagheri Kani, the Iranian chief negotiator. According to Tehran, this is the price the US will have to pay to exit the agreement in 2018.

But Western diplomats said they were still not entirely sure whether Iran was really interested in negotiating a return to the deal or just playing for time while it pushes its nuclear program. In view of the increasingly tight timeframe, a senior Western diplomat said that from this week “all issues must be negotiated in parallel”.

Here’s a look at the key sticking points and some of the possible solutions.

Core material

The JCPOA ensured that it would take Iran about a year to procure enough fissile material to make an atomic bomb. Today this period – what experts call the “breakout time” – has been reduced to just a few weeks.

The talks on the nuclear dossier are very technical as steps need to be specified that will bring the Iranian nuclear program back to 2015 levels. Solutions are in sight to some questions. With others, it’s more complicated.

For example, one way to get rid of the excess Iranian nuclear material would be to ship it to Russia. This would take time, but it is doable and has been done in the past.

Much more difficult, and still not agreed, is how to deal with Iran’s many advanced centrifuges – machines that spin at high speed to enrich uranium.

Iran has enriched uranium to 60 percent, which is almost weapons-grade. As part of the JCPOA, Iran was allowed to enrich uranium to 3.67 percent with a limited number of its first-generation centrifuges in the underground fuel enrichment facility in Natanz. However, Iran has installed hundreds of advanced centrifuges at its two main plants in Fordow and Natanz, which are much more efficient and powerful.

Some countries want Iran to destroy its advanced centrifuges, but Iran prefers to store them, according to Western diplomats. A compromise could be to eliminate the infrastructure, such as cables and other electronic installations, that are required to operate modern centrifuges. Reinstalling this infrastructure would take many months and could help increase the breakout time.

A central aspect in this discussion is the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear regulatory authority, which is tasked with verifying that Iran is complying with its nuclear commitments. IAEA inspectors pay regular visits to the Iranian nuclear facilities, although their access has been severely restricted by Tehran in recent months.

Iran must restore full access to inspectors for an agreement to be approved. Iran must also give the IAEA access to the memory cards of cameras installed in nuclear facilities. Tehran is currently withholding this information.

Sanctions and review

While the IAEA is reviewing the nuclear side of the agreement, there is no equivalent body dealing with sanctions. The negotiators must therefore agree on how this can be done. This is a stumbling block that needs to be resolved quickly. Western diplomats said they are waiting for Iran to come up with proposals in Vienna this week.

One possibility would be for the US Office of Foreign Asset Control to issue guidelines for doing business with Iran and to publish the repeal of relevant executive orders. Another instrument could be the conclusion of contracts for oil exports or the opening of foreign bank accounts.

With the US unilaterally pulling out of the deal, Washington likely needs to take a “sensible first step,” as a senior Western diplomat put it, and lift some sanctions before Tehran takes action to reduce its nuclear program.

Guarantees

Tehran has publicly insisted on many occasions that Washington should provide legal guarantees that the US will not get out of the deal if it is restored.

“There has to be a serious and sufficient guarantee that the untrustworthy US will not leave the JCPOA again,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian in a telephone conversation with EU Foreign Affairs Representative Josep Borrell in November.

But US President Joe Biden will not be able to offer such a legal position Guarantee. Biden is already fighting with a deeply divided Congress, with even some Democrats being skeptical of diplomacy with Iran.

But there could also be other ways of allowing the contracts to continue for some time after the theoretical reintroduction of sanctions by a future US administration, for example.

The Biden government could also make a political pledge to adhere to the agreement, similar to Biden’s pledge on the sidelines of the G20 summit in October. This would also be important for companies that want to do business with Iran, as they need to have enough confidence in Washington’s intentions.

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