Despite the diversions produced by the ongoing violence in Ukraine, diplomats aiming to rescue the stalled 2015 Iran nuclear agreement have continued to negotiate. They now appear to be on the verge of reaching an agreement that would reintroduce the United States into the agreement while also bringing Iran back into compliance with nuclear-proliferation restrictions.
Only a tiny number of concerns remain unresolved after 11 months of on-again, off-again discussions in Vienna, according to US officials and others. Meanwhile, Russia appears to have backtracked on a vow to sabotage a deal on Ukraine-related sanctions, which had hampered the chances of a swift accord.
That left political leaders in Washington and Tehran to reach an agreement — or at least an accord in principle. However, as has been the case in the past, both Iran and the United States claim that such choices must be made by the other party, putting a settlement in jeopardy despite the fact that everyone concerned claims the situation is urgent and must be handled as quickly as possible.
“We’re getting close to a possible settlement,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Wednesday. “We’ll find out in the near future if we’ll be able to get there.”
German Foreign Ministry spokesman Christofer Burger said Wednesday in Berlin that work “on crafting a final text has been finished” and that “the essential political choices now need to be taken in capitals.”
“We now hope that these discussions may be finished quickly,” he said.
Since taking office, the Biden administration has made re-entering the 2015 accord known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, a top goal.
The agreement, which was once a signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration, during which now-President Joe Biden served as vice president, was abandoned in 2018 by then-President Donald Trump, who dubbed it the “worst deal ever negotiated” and proceeded to restore and expand US sanctions that had been lifted.
According to the Biden administration, any existing threat posed by Iran would become immensely more terrible if it were to achieve a nuclear weapon. Deal critics, largely but not exclusively Republicans, claim that the original agreement offered Iran a path to acquiring a nuclear weapon by eliminating numerous restraints through “sunset” clauses. Certain limitations were to be gradually eased as a result of these stipulations.
Both sides’ disputes heated up over the weekend when Iran launched missile attacks near the US embassy facility in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. The strike, according to opponents, proved that Iran cannot be trusted and that no sanctions relief should be granted. For the administration, it confirmed that if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, it will pose a larger threat.
“What it emphasizes for us is that Iran poses a threat to our friends, partners, and, in certain circumstances, the United States, across a wide variety of areas,” Price said. “A nuclear-armed Iran, or an Iran on the verge of gaining a nuclear weapon, would be the most pressing threat we would confront.”
Meanwhile, Iran freed two arrested British people on Wednesday, providing a new ray of optimism for progress. The United States, which pulled out of the nuclear deal in 2018, and the three European nations that remain signatories have stated that reaching an accord would be difficult, if not impossible, while those detainees, as well as some American individuals, stay in Iran.
Price said Tuesday that if the prisoner problem is handled, the gaps in the nuclear discussions may be rapidly filled if Iran makes the political decision to return to compliance.
“We do believe that if choices are taken in capitals, including in Tehran, we will be able to bridge those gaps, to shorten that remaining distance,” Price added.
However, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdolahian, has stated that an agreement is totally dependent on Washington.
After meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on Tuesday, he stated, “More than ever, the ball is in our court to deliver the replies needed for a successful conclusion of the discussions.” “I have been reassured that Russia remains on board for the final accord in Vienna,” Amirabdolahian added.
Last-minute Russian concerns to the possible spillover of Ukraine-related sanctions into operations Moscow would engage with Tehran under a new nuclear agreement have been resolved, according to Lavrov, who claimed the discussions were in the “final run.”
He said that the proposed deal would carve out certain actions, which the US has not refuted and has stated that the Russians should have known from the start.
“We would not sanction Russian involvement in nuclear projects that are part of the (agreement) being fully implemented again,” Price added. “We can’t, won’t, and haven’t given Russia any assurances beyond that.”
He stated that the US will not enable Russia to circumvent Ukraine-related sanctions by passing money or assets through Iran. “Any settlement will not be an escape hatch for the Russian Federation and the sanctions placed on it as a result of the war in Ukraine,” he said.
Deal detractors are doubtful that Russia won’t try to skirt Ukraine sanctions in its dealings with Iran, and they’ve warned that possible sanctions-busting is only one of the reasons they’ll vote against a new pact.
All but one of the Senate’s 50 Republicans signed a joint statement earlier this week vowing to derail any agreement with Iran that includes time limits on restrictions on advanced nuclear work or fails to address other concerns they have, such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and military support for proxies in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
While the GOP won’t be able to reject a deal now, after November’s midterm elections, it may have majorities in both chambers of Congress. It would be difficult for the administration to remain committed to any agreement negotiated.
The degree of sanctions relief that the Biden administration is willing to grant Iran if it returns to compliance with the deal is another source of concern for deal detractors. Iran has demanded that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ status as a “foreign terrorist organization” by the Trump administration be lifted.
The US has refused, stating that it will only do so if Iran agrees to cease supporting and arming terrorist organizations in the area and abroad. The issue has piqued Washington’s interest, not least because the IRGC is suspected of making specific and genuine threats against former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump’s Iran envoy Brian Hook.