Iran nuclear deal talks are stuck after substantial progress, negotiator says

Key Points
  • A German official involved in the talks described the progress made in the last three rounds of discussions as "quite substantial" despite coming to a now two-month standstill.
  • The pause in talks follows the election of Iran's new president, Ebrahim Raisi, who will succeed Hassan Rouhani this week.
  • Last month, a senior Biden administration official told reporters on the condition of anonymity that the U.S. negotiating team had not reached a deal after six rounds of talks.
A woman passes a mural painted on the wall of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, on May 9, 2018. US President Donald Trump announced 'withdrawal' from Iran nuclear deal on May 9, 2018.
Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

WASHINGTON – The fragile discussions over the revival of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal were about two weeks away from reaching a conclusion in June, but several complicated items remain unresolved, according to a senior German government official participating in the talks.

Earlier this year, signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, began the first of what would become six rounds of all-day negotiations at multiple hotels across Vienna.

"In March our determination and that of our American friends was to get this done quickly. It took longer than we thought. But I think, in June, another two weeks of serious negotiation and political will, we could have had it," the senior German government official said.

Until that point, the progress had been "quite substantial," the official said.

"As it always is in these kinds of negotiations, the most complicated points were left to the end and we're not resolved, but I would say, we started with a blank piece of paper and by June we had four different texts and something like 1,520 pages of the agreement hammered out," the official explained.

The official requested anonymity in order to discuss the negotiations candidly.

The pause in talks follows the election of Iran's new president, Ebrahim Raisi, who will succeed Hassan Rouhani this week.

The 2015 JCPOA, brokered in part by the Obama administration, lifted sanctions on Iran that had crippled its economy and cut its oil exports roughly in half. Alongside the United States, France, Germany, the U.K., Russia and China ⁠were also signatories of the agreement.

Iran agreed to dismantle some of its nuclear program and open its facilities to more extensive international inspections in exchange for billions of dollars in sanctions relief.

In 2018, then-President Donald Trump kept a campaign promise and unilaterally withdrew the United States from the JCPOA, calling it the "worst deal ever." Trump also reintroduced sanctions on Tehran that had been previously lifted. Following Washington's exit from the landmark nuclear deal, other signatories of the pact ⁠have struggled to keep the agreement alive.

The Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign hampered Iran's already strained economy and slashed oil exports, bringing tensions between Tehran and Washington to a boiling point.

The Biden administration has since sought a return to the deal and recently completed a sixth round of negotiations in Vienna.

Last month, a senior Biden administration official told reporters on condition of anonymity that the U.S. negotiating team had not reached a deal after the six rounds of talks. The official added that the U.S. would enter the seventh round of talks with the other signatories, also referred to as the P5+1.

When pressed for a timeline, the official declined to elaborate on any scheduling details for when negotiations would resume.

'This process cannot go on indefinitely'

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken participates in a news conference with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kuwait City, Kuwait July 29, 2021.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concern over the nearly two-month standstill in talks.

"We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely," Blinken said during a news conference in Kuwait on July 29.

"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," the top U.S. diplomat said, adding "the ball remains in Iran's court."

When asked whether the incoming Raisi administration has spoken to the negotiating teams, the German official said there has yet to be any communication.

"I think there are enough indications that there is a real debate within the Iranian system on how to proceed with these negotiations," the German official said, downplaying concerns that Raisi would walk away from the talks altogether.

Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi gestures after casting his vote during presidential elections at a polling station in Tehran, Iran June 18, 2021.
Majid Asgaripour | WANA News Agency | Reuters

Raisi said in a televised speech on Tuesday that he will lift the "tyrannical sanctions imposed by America" and improve the living conditions of Iranians.

In June, Raisi ruled out a meeting with Biden after he is sworn in on Thursday, which the White House downplayed by saying that the United States does not currently have diplomatic relations with Iran.

Raisi, who is under personal U.S. sanctions over allegations of human rights abuses, is expected to adopt a hard-line approach at the talks in Vienna.

"What we think are the next steps, is that they [Iranians] will come back to Vienna once the government is formed. So this brings us to the middle of August and then we will meet and see which kind of negotiating positions they come with," the German official said.

'What remained contentious'

As Iran and Western powers prepare for a potential seventh round of talks, the German official said the negotiations thus far have been "very straightforward."

"We had quite a good understanding with the Iranians on how the reentry into the JCPOA would work. I don't want to underplay what remained contentious though, that was substantial," the official said.

When asked to elaborate on the major sticking points, the official said that the Iranians often reiterate concerns that the United States will withdraw with the start of a new administration.

"They want to guarantee that there won't be any Trump 2.0 as long as they are in full compliance, that the Americans won't simply draw out of the agreement again," the German official said.

Another conflicting issue is the scope of the sanctions relief for Tehran, in which Iranian representatives have called for more easing.

"We together with our American friends say the sanctions which needs to be lifted, are those which have a JCPOA connection," the official said, adding that penalties for human rights abuses would remain intact. "There are other issues we need to talk about in follow-on talks which the Iranians are not willing to commit to," the person added.

Since Trump's decision to leave the agreement, Tehran has increased its uranium enrichment and stockpiling far beyond the deal's limits. What's more, Western powers are concerned about Iran's ambitious advances in research and development in the nuclear field.

"There comes a point when there's no JCPOA to return to as Iran proceeds with its activities in the field of enrichment and in research and development," the person said. "We aren't there yet, but this is a prospect everybody should be aware of."

Iran says it will break internationally-agreed limit on uranium levels
Iran says it will break internationally-agreed limit on uranium levels