The Iran Nuclear Talks Explained

BRUSSELS — In Vienna on Tuesday, the signers of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal will come along with what would look like a easy process. They need to restore compliance with an settlement that put strict controls on Iran’s nuclear enrichment, to make sure that it can’t construct a nuclear weapon, in return for the lifting of punishing financial sanctions.

Both Iran and the United States insist that they need to return to the deal, often called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or J.C.P.O.A. But nothing about the meeting will probably be easy.

President Donald J. Trump pulled the United States out of the accord in May 2018, calling it “the worst deal ever negotiated,’’ and restored and then enhanced harsh economic sanctions against Iran, trying to force it to renegotiate.

Iran responded in part by enriching uranium significantly beyond the limits in the agreement, building more advanced centrifuges, and acting more aggressively in support of allies in the Middle East, like Hezbollah, Hamas, Shia militias in Iraq and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

So returning to a deal made six years ago will likely be harder than many people realize.

The Vienna talks are intended to create a road map for a synchronized return of both Iran and the United States to compliance with the 2015 deal. It has been at risk of collapse since Mr. Trump repudiated American participation.

The accord was the outcome of years of negotiations with Iran. Under the chairmanship of the European Union, Britain, France and Germany made the first overtures to Iran, joined by the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: Russia, China and the United States.

But it was not until the United States started secret talks with Iran under President Barack Obama and agreed that Iran could enrich uranium, though under safeguards, that a breakthrough occurred. Even then, the deal was widely criticized as too weak by many in Congress and by Israel, which saw Iran’s possible reach for a nuclear weapon — an aspiration always denied by Iran — as an existential threat.

The Europeans tried to keep the deal alive, but proved unable to provide Iran the economic benefits it was due after Mr. Trump restored American sanctions that had been lifted under the deal’s terms. The American sanctions, based on the global power of the dollar and the American banking system, kept European and other companies from doing business with Iran, and Mr. Trump intensified the pressure by adding many more sanctions.

Iran responded in various ways, including attacks on shipping and on American allies in Iraq, but more important by restarting uranium enrichment at a higher level and with centrifuges banned under the deal. The estimated time it would take Iran to make enough enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon has now shrunk from a year, which was what the deal wanted to preserve, to just a few months. Iran is also making uranium metal necessary for a warhead, also banned under the deal, and is aggressively supporting allies in the Middle East, including many the West regards as terrorist groups.

In a further pressure tactic, Iran has interpreted the inspection requirements of the deal narrowly, and has declined to answer questions from the International Atomic Energy Agency about radioactive particles that inspectors found at sites that have never been declared by Tehran as part of the nuclear program. Iran agreed in late February to keep recording information on its inspection equipment for three months, but without granting I.A.E.A. access. If economic sanctions are not lifted in that time, Iran says, the information will be deleted, which would leave the world in the dark about key parts of the nuclear program.

Iran insists it can return to compliance with the deal quickly, but wants the United States to do so first. The Biden administration says it wants Iran to go first.

Trust is one big problem. The Iranian regime was established by a revolution more than four decades ago that replaced the American-backed Shah of Iran with a complicated government overseen by clerics and the strong hand of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The ayatollah only reluctantly agreed to the 2015 deal with the “Great Satan” of America. After Mr. Trump pulled out, Mr. Khamenei’s distrust solely deepened.

Mr. Trump additionally imposed many financial sanctions on Iran past these initially lifted by the deal, making an attempt “maximum pressure” to power Iran to barter far more stringent phrases. Iranian officers now say as many as 1,600 American sanctions have to be lifted, about half of them imposed by Mr. Trump. Some are geared toward terrorism and human rights violations, not nuclear points. Lifting a few of them would create opposition in Congress.

Many in Washington, not to mention in Israel and Europe, additionally disbelieve Iran’s assertions that it has by no means pursued a nuclear weapon and would by no means achieve this.

Further complicating restoration of the accord are its “sunset” clauses, or deadlines, that may permit Iran to renew sure nuclear enrichment actions. The Biden administration desires additional negotiations with Iran to increase these deadlines in addition to put limits on Iran’s missile program and different actions.

Iran says it merely desires the United States to return to the deal it left, together with the lifting of sanctions, earlier than it’ll return, too. It has up to now rejected any additional talks.

Even underneath the Islamic regime, Iran has politics, too. There are presidential elections in June, with candidates permitted by the clerics. The present president, Hassan Rouhani, who can’t run for one more time period, and the overseas minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, are thought of comparatively average and negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal. But highly effective forces in Iran opposed the deal, together with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The moderates hope that fast progress on lifting financial sanctions will assist them within the presidential elections; the hard-liners are anticipated to oppose any fast deal in Vienna which may profit the moderates.

Iran has lived with powerful Trump sanctions for 3 years now and survived widespread discontent and even protests, and hard-liners will argue that one other six months will not be more likely to matter.

The assembly of senior diplomats is formally a session of the Joint Commission of the deal, known as by the European Union as chairman. Since the United States left the accord, its representatives won’t be within the room, however someplace close by. Diplomats from Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran will meet, with a European Union chair, and begin to talk about how you can revitalize the accord.

Iran refuses to satisfy face-to-face with American diplomats. So the Europeans recommend that they may both meet the Americans with proposals, or that the Iranians will go away the room earlier than the Americans enter. This technique of oblique talks may take time.

But European diplomats say that after just a few days, the job will probably be left in Vienna to working teams on the sophisticated political and technical points. If a tough settlement could be reached on a synchronized return to compliance, the expectation is that officers of Iran and the United States will meet to finalize the main points.

The talks might take a very long time, and a few in Washington hope not less than for an settlement in precept within the subsequent few months that may bind any new Iranian authorities after the June elections.

But some European diplomats worry that an excessive amount of time has already elapsed, and that the deal is successfully lifeless, and can basically function a reference level for what could also be a essentially new negotiation.

So the timeline is unclear, as is the prospect for achievement.

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