US expects no ‘immediate breakthrough’ from Iran talks

The European Union will preside over talks between current members of the 2015 pact — Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia and Britain — set to begin on Tuesday.
Tuesday 06/04/2021
A file photo shows the heavy water nuclear facility near Arak, Iran. (AP)
A file photo shows the heavy water nuclear facility near Arak, Iran. (AP)

WASHINGTON--The United States expects indirect talks with Iran that begin on Tuesday about both sides resuming compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to be “difficult” and does not foresee any early breakthrough.

“We don’t underestimate the scale of the challenges ahead,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday.

“These are early days. We don’t anticipate an early or immediate breakthrough as these discussions, we fully expect, will be difficult,” he told reporters.

US and Iranian officials are scheduled to begin indirect talks in Vienna, with European officials expected to act as intermediaries, to try to revive the 2015 pact under which economic sanctions on Iran were eased in return for curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme to make it harder to develop a nuclear weapon. Tehran denies seeking to develop atomic bombs.

Iran has ruled out face-to-face bilateral discussions and Price told reporters at his daily briefing that Washington did not expect any “at present” but was open to the possibility.

US Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley, a veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations, will lead the US delegation in Vienna, where the pact was originally reached in 2015.

The European Union will preside over talks between current members of the 2015 pact — Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia and Britain — set to begin on Tuesday.

The US delegation will meet in a different place with EU negotiators acting as go-betweens.

Kelsey Davenport, director for Non-proliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association think-tank, said the format was not ideal but added the EU was well situated to break the stalemate.

She called for a “bold first step by both sides” which she hoped would inject “much-needed momentum” into the process.

Washington, for example, could unfreeze Iranian funds held in foreign banks to facilitate humanitarian trade, and Tehran could stop enriching uranium beyond the levels agreed in the 2015 accord, said Davenport.

“The problem is all the irreversible things, like the research activities Tehran has undertaken,” a Vienna-based diplomat pointed out.

Nor is it clear that the US administration is willing to lift all of its sanctions, as Iran is demanding.

 “Maximalist position ” 

On the eve of the talks, Rob Malley, US special envoy on Iran, talked only of removing “those sanctions that are inconsistent with the deal”.

“If we’re realistic about what both sides have to do… we could get there,” he told US broadcaster PBS.

“But if either side takes a maximalist position and says that the other side has to do everything first before it’s going to move one inch, I think it’s hard to see how this succeeds.”

The agreement, formally named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was struck by Iran and six major powers: Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.

US President Joe Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew from the deal in 2018 and re-imposed US sanctions, prompting Iran, after waiting more than a year, to violate some of the pact’s nuclear restrictions in retaliation.

A file picture of Robert Malley, US special envoy on Iran. Wires (Wires)
A file picture of Robert Malley, US special envoy on Iran. Wires (AFP)

The Trump administration believed the sanctions pressure it applied would force Iran to consent to a new, more restrictive agreement that would also limit Iran’s development of ballistic missiles and its support for Shi’ite proxies in the Middle East.

The Biden administration has maintained the sanctions on Iran it inherited from the Trump administration, saying it wants both sides to resume complying with the JCPOA but that this requires negotiations.

“Our goal at these talks … is to set the stage for that mutual return to compliance,” Price said.

Iran has laid down a tough line in advance, with its foreign ministry saying on Saturday that it wants the United States to lift all sanctions and rejects any “step-by-step” easing of restrictions.

“Robert Malley will have to leave Vienna empty-handed if the Tuesday meeting would result in anything other than the removal of all US sanctions,” a source close to Iran’s negotiating team told Iran’s English-language Press TV on Monday.

While the two sides had appeared at odds over who should take the first step to resume compliance, a US official told Reuters recently that Washington would be “pragmatic” and not let the matter of who goes first to be an obstacle.