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The US and Iran breathed a little life back into the nuclear deal

The US and Iran took a small step toward reviving the nuclear deal. But major hurdles still remain before it’s fully alive.

Representatives of the European Union and Iran attend the Iran nuclear talks at the Grand Hotel on April 6 in Vienna, Austria.
EU Delegation in Vienna/Getty Images

The US and Iran have taken a cautious, initial step toward reviving the 2015 nuclear deal following the first full day of high-stakes, indirect diplomatic meetings currently taking place in Vienna, Austria.

But it was a small move at best. It doesn’t guarantee both sides will return to compliance with the terms of the pact, which then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from in 2018.

The Vienna meetings involved all the signatories to the nuclear agreement — Iran, Russia, China, France, the UK, and Germany — as well as the European Union. But the US and Iran didn’t speak directly to one another, as Iran refused to do so. Rather, they each met separately with the other parties and communicated with each other through European intermediaries.

Tensions are high, and neither side wants to look like it is caving to the other. The optics matter so much that the US delegation, led by special envoy for Iran Rob Malley, posted up at a hotel across the street from the hotel where the Iranians held their meetings, requiring European diplomats to shuttle back and forth.

Even with those complications, the US and Iran struck a tiny bargain: They set up two working groups, which by diplomatic standards is considered progress.

The first working group will examine how the US can return to compliance with the deal, namely by lifting the sanctions the Trump administration put back on Iran after the US withdrew. The second one will explore how Iran can return to compliance, requiring it to once again restrict its nuclear program.

“As a broad step forward,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on Tuesday, this modest agreement “is a welcome step, it is a constructive step, it is a potentially useful step.”

Analysts I spoke to acknowledged that this initial move may not seem like much, as it merely establishes a process for discussing how to get both countries back into compliance with the deal.

But “the fact that talks have continued at the technical level shows that political leaders on both sides agree on the general contours of the roadmap needed for Iran and the US to come back into compliance,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

The challenge now is for all parties in Vienna to chart a clear path forward in the roughly 10 days they have left. That’s no easy feat.

The US and Iran still face hurdles in getting back into the deal

Experts I spoke to said getting the US and Iran to comply with the nuclear deal’s terms again will be easier than it was to get them to sign the pact in the first place six years ago.

But that doesn’t mean it will be easy.

“The barriers to a swift resolution are significant,” said Dina Esfandiary, a senior adviser for the Middle East at the International Crisis Group.

Here are just three of those barriers: ensuring that Iran follows through on scaling back its nuclear program; agreeing on which economic sanctions the US should lift, and who should go first; and figuring all of this out before the upcoming Iranian elections get underway.

Let’s start with the first one. On Wednesday, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization spokesperson Behrouz Kamalvandi said his country had produced 55 kilograms (roughly 121 pounds) of uranium enriched to 20 percent, up from about 17 kilograms in January.

Uranium enriched to 20 percent is considered “highly enriched,” but it’s a far cry from the 90 percent enrichment needed to make nuclear material for a bomb. Iran, then, has moved slightly closer — but still not particularly close — to actually having enough material to make a nuclear weapon.

Still, the 2015 nuclear deal capped Iran’s uranium enrichment to 3.67 percent and prohibited the country from stockpiling more than 300 kilograms of the material.

For the deal to move forward, the US will want Iran to prove it has stopped enriching uranium to such high levels and that it has reduced its stockpile of the material back to the level set under the terms of the 2015 agreement. That will require international inspectors to verify Iran’s compliance through activities like accessing footage from cameras inside certain nuclear facilities or even visiting sites in person, which takes time.

The second barrier is a sequencing issue: Should the US lift its sanctions before Iran comes back into compliance, or should Iran prove it’s following the rules before the financial penalties come back off? Neither side wants to move first, experts say, and it’s a major sticking point.

A related issue is exactly which sanctions the US should remove. Tehran wants pretty much every single sanction on it lifted in exchange for its nuclear-deal compliance, whereas the Biden administration only wants to consider penalties related to Iran’s nuclear efforts. Striking a bargain on that will be tough, according to analysts.

“The technical challenges of sanctions relief and the rollback of Iran’s nuclear program are in some sense less difficult than the political challenge of ensuring the win-win logic of the [nuclear deal] prevails over the zero-sum logic of leverage seeking and coercion,” said ECFR’s Batmanghelidj.

And the third barrier is a matter of scheduling. Iran has a presidential election coming up in June. President Hassan Rouhani, who negotiated the original deal and staked much of his political fortune on its success, is about to be term-limited out, and hardliners are vying for his soon-to-be-vacated office. It’s possible the next administration won’t be as amenable to the nuclear deal as this one.

“The Supreme Leader may yet decide that it would be wiser to wait until a new administration is in place in Iran before pursuing talks with the US,” Esfandiary told me.

The US doesn’t seem too worried about that, though. “We will negotiate with whoever is in power in Iran,” Malley, the top US envoy for Iran, said in a Tuesday NPR interview. “And if we could reach an understanding before the elections, fine. And if we can’t, we’ll continue after that with whoever is in office in Tehran.”

“So we can’t ignore the reality of an election, but we can’t let it dictate our pace either,” Malley added.

There are other issues at play, namely the Biden administration’s desire to put Iran’s missile program and support for terrorism up for negotiation and Tehran’s continued resistance to doing so. Those concerns, among others, may arise when there’s another full meeting between officials on Friday.

But the developments this week show both sides at least are still talking instead of walking away from the table. It’s progress, if only barely.