or months, the United States was humming and hawing about how and on what terms it would return to the nuclear deal with Iran, as doubts were percolating in world capitals about whether the administration of Joe Biden even wanted to revive the deal.
But during indirect talks between Iran and the US over the last couple weeks in Vienna, Washington startled just about everyone involved when it suddenly presented plans detailing how it would remove sanctions on Iran if it were to roll back its nuclear programme for both countries to back come into compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
“What they have put to the Iranians is a very serious economic proposal,” said one official involved in the talks. “I think it’s more than the Iranians were expecting. What the Americans put on the table was a complete return to the JCPOA. The Iranians were quite surprised.”
Diplomats and observers, describe a dramatic sea change in the tone of the talks in Vienna, where the delegations of negotiators are camped out in various upscale hotels, shuttling back and forth with offers and counteroffers. Negotiators last week were hammering a joint text that would spell out a potential return to compliance by both the US and Iran.
“It is not clear when the final deal will be reached,” Iran’s chief negotiator Abbas Araqchi told state television on Sunday.
Talks during the first weeks of May will be crucial, underlining the need for an agreement before two imminent dates. Under an agreement with the JCPOA, Iran would destroy footage of nuclear facilities under international inspection if a deal is not reached by 21 May, potentially obscuring crucial information about the country’s atomic programme. Iran is also about to enter a politically divisive season ahead of 18 June presidential elections that could elevate more hardline leaders in Tehran.
US officials have been cautious in assessing the potential for success. “It is fair to say that some progress has been made,” US State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on Thursday. “We have a better understanding of what we might need to do were Iran to go back into compliance, and it is our assessment that the Iranians have a better sense of what they would need to do to resume their compliance with the JCPOA.”
He warned though that “we are not on the cusp of any breakthrough”, and described “a potentially long road ahead”.
The stakes for the success of the ongoing talks are high. The Biden administration wants not only a return to the JCPOA, but follow-on agreements that would further tighten restraints on Iran’s nuclear programme and potentially address its support for armed groups in the region.
“Biden understands that if the sanctions relief is not effective there would be no incentive for Iran to negotiate a follow-on deal,” said Ali Vaez, Iran researcher at the Crisis Group. “For the Biden administration the JCPOA is a way station to a longer and stronger nuclear deal.”
A return to the nuclear deal would fulfill one of Mr Biden’s campaign promises and possibly reduce tensions in the Middle East, which has taxed the attention of every American president since Richard Nixon, who left office almost half a century ago.
But any deal could also trigger a backlash in Washington by hawks wary of any diplomacy with Iran, as well as upset regional security partners such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, which is actively seeking to scuttle the talks.
For now, Mr Biden’s team of negotiators — led by veteran diplomat Robert Malley — appear set on moving toward a deal after weeks in which the US explored the possibility of a much more limited engagement.
“In February and March they were focused on one step from each side,” said Mr Vaez. “At the time the US proposal was not at all generous and it backfired on the entire process. They wasted a few weeks. That taught the US team a lesson.”
President Donald Trump, pursuing a policy of “maximum pressure” against Iran, imposed hundreds of sanctions on the country in an attempt to complicate any future return to the JCPOA.
Under the US proposals, Washington would not only remove sanctions that directly undermine the JCPOA, but those on Iran’s shipping, banking, energy, and automotive and other industries that were designed to make a return to the JCPOA more difficult, said two people briefed on the talks.
What will remain in place are sanctions imposed on Iran over its human rights violations, its cyberattacks on US infrastructure and its alleged interference in US elections. One of the biggest sticking points is foreign terrorist designation of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards, which is a branch of the Iranian armed forces, and is an increasingly powerful political force hostile to the pragmatist faction of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani.
“Domestically, that’s an extremely costly sanctions to remove for the Biden administration,” said Mr Vaez. “But it’s also costly for the Rouhani administration to go back to Tehran and say they’ve lifted all sanctions except for the ones on their rivals.”
With Iran’s nuclear programme steadily advancing, the US could face a major crisis if it doesn’t secure a deal. Iran has amassed 10 times the enriched uranium it was permitted under the JCPOA and is using centrifuges barred under the deal. Its breakout time to amass enough fissile material to quickly assemble a bomb has dropped from a year to a few months.
“It is fair to say that this is a crisis that we inherited,” said Mr Price. “This was a crisis that was precipitated by both sides distancing themselves from the Iran deal.”
On the other hand, the prospect of a potential easing of tensions between Iran and the US has already prompted a revival of regional diplomacy that had all but died under Mr Trump. Saudi and Iranian officials have reportedly been meeting in Baghdad to discuss the ongoing war in Yemen, and Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, recently spoke out in favour of better relations with Tehran.
Mr Vaez said the US officials had no role in encouraging diplomacy but merely declined to discourage it as the Trump administration used to do.
“The Iranians are interested in a slightly different relationship with their region, and the Saudis are the key to that,” said a western diplomat. “The American repositioning has made the Saudis feel they need to make this sort of approach. They want to make progress on Yemen, and Iran is a way of accelerating that.”
Businesses, too, are warily considering potentially resuming commercial ties with Iran, including in noncontroversial sales of food and medicine that have been curtailed because of banking sanctions. Experts say companies fearful of billion-dollar US fines will need some coaxing and reassurance before they wade into Iran again.
“It’s happening in certain sectors,” said Leigh Hansson, a partner at international law firm Reed Smith. “There’s interest in shipping and natural resources as long as it’s clear there will not be any problems from a sanctions perspective. Everyone is also nervous that a new administration could come in four years and tear it all up again.”