World Politics

Iran has agreed to return to nuclear talks — but don't expect a deal anytime soon, experts say

Key Points
  • The announcement came amid tensions between Iran and the West as Tehran ramps up nuclear activity in breach of the 2015 deal's parameters as its economy buckles under U.S. sanctions.
  • The U.N. atomic energy watchdog's Director-General Rafael Grossi said in late October that Iran is "within a few months" of having enough material to build a nuclear bomb.
High-level representatives from Russia, China, Germany, England, France and Iran attended the Joint Commission.
Askin Kiyagan | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Iran will resume talks with six world powers before the end of November, its top negotiator said Wednesday, seeking to revive the 2015 nuclear deal that lifted sanctions on the Islamic Republic in exchange for curbs to its nuclear program. 

"Had a very serious & constructive dialogue with @enriquemora_ on the essential elements for successful negotiations. We agree to start negotiations before the end of November," Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani wrote on Twitter following meetings with EU officials in Brussels.

But a deal is still a long way off, experts have warned, if indeed an agreement remains possible at all.

The announcement came amid mounting tensions between Iran and the West as Tehran ramps up nuclear activity in violation of the deal's parameters. Iran's government insists the developments are for peaceful purposes, but the U.N. atomic energy watchdog's Director-General Rafael Grossi said in late October that Iran is "within a few months" of having enough material to build a nuclear bomb.

Talks that had begun under the Joe Biden administration were stalled following the June election of the hardline and anti-Western cleric Ebrahim Raisi, which some see as a delaying tactic meant to project a more staunch position.

"I don't expect an agreement anytime soon, because the Iranian delaying tactics and messaging coming from Tehran and the new administration clearly indicate that they are intending to take a hard line and a tougher negotiating position," said Sanam Vakil, deputy head of the Middle East North Africa program at Chatham House.

Vakil noted that Kani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, has also refused to meet the E3 — the foreign ministers of Germany, France and the U.K. — in a coordinated manner, "suggesting that he is trying to sow divisions alongside the delaying tactics that we have witnessed over the past few months."

"I expect that the negotiations will take a number of months and we should be prepared that those negotiations might not see the final resumption of the deal," she added.

U.S. says it's prepared to return to talks on nuclear deal with Iran

Political risk consultancy Eurasia Group put it starkly: it now believes that "a revival of the Iran nuclear agreement is unlikely next year, as Iran's rapid nuclear buildup and maximalist demands will probably render irrelevant the 2015 agreement," its analysts wrote in a Wednesday note, adding that they put the probability of a deal in 2022 at 30%. 

Previously, it saw a deal next year as more feasible given Iran's crippled economy and its need to see sanctions lifted. Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the Obama-era deal in 2018 and reimposed harsh sanctions on Iran, which has sent inflation in the country soaring and its currency plunging. 

But "Iran's continued intransigence and the acceleration of its nuclear program will make it difficult for even the most forward-leaning negotiators to revive the agreement next year," Eurasia's analysts wrote. 

Iran elects hardline president as fate of nuclear deal hangs in the balance

The State Department earlier this month said that it wanted negotiations to restart "as soon as possible," adding that the White House had "made clear that if diplomacy fails we are prepared to turn to other options," though it did not specify what those other options were.

Iran's steady reduction of compliance to the nuclear deal, also called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, has included increasing uranium stockpiling and enrichment levels far beyond the parameters set out in the JCPOA and to a level that many in the international community say is alarming

Tehran insists that its moves are within its sovereign rights and that they can be reversed if the U.S. lifts sanctions. Meanwhile, the Biden administration says it is ready to return to the negotiating table, but will only lift sanctions if Iran reverses its JCPOA breaches first.

The implications of a longer delay to a deal spread beyond Iran. As Iran reduces its "breakout time" to bomb-building capability below the current estimated three months, Israel is more likely to launch sabotage attacks, and the U.S. and its allies will have to weigh more sanctions or other deterrent actions, pushing both countries further toward confrontation.