VIENNA – As the Biden administration tries to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, one of the biggest obstacles is Tehran’s demand that the US provide a guarantee that it will not walk away from the deal and impose sanctions, diplomats say involved in talks in Austria.
Demanding a response to former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal appears to be a top policy objective for the administration of Iran’s new tough president, US and European diplomats say here. The diplomats said they do not believe Iran’s request is aimed at simply protracting the talks.
The US has consistently said that no president can legally tie the hands of a successor without a treaty that would need to garner the support of two-thirds of the US Senate. The US has also said current talks should remain focused on restoring the 2015 deal, rather than new commitments by both sides.
The standoff over guarantees comes amid what US and European officials are calling signs of progress at the Vienna talks, which involve Iran, the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. The 2015 deal suspended most international sanctions against Iran in exchange for strict but temporary restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program.
Western diplomats say a path to a deal is possible, and have been showing more optimism since December, when Iran’s demands left negotiations on the brink of failure. US and European officials privately see mid-February as the moment to decide if diplomacy has been exhausted.
There was progress on the fine print, including how sanctions would be lifted, how Iran would scale back its nuclear work, and how a multi-month deal could be implemented.
But Western diplomats warn that a number of key political decisions remain to be made on sanctions, nuclear moves and the sequencing of a deal, and many worry whether Tehran is ready to strike a deal fast enough. Western officials have repeatedly warned that the window for talks is closing amid progress on Iran’s nuclear work.
“These negotiations are advancing far too slowly to reach a conclusion,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Friday.
By demanding an ironclad US commitment to a deal, Iran’s concerns highlight a key weakness of the 2015 deal. The deal was never signed as a contract with clear legal guarantees. Its official name – Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – underscored that it was a set of political commitments, albeit commitments, later reinforced by a UN Security Council resolution.
More on the nuclear talks with Iran
When talks to restore the deal began last spring, Iran added a US pledge not to leave the deal again to its wish list, along with other demands such as compensation for Washington’s withdrawal in 2018. Western diplomats felt that this was mainly for domestic show and that Iran was likely to scale back its requests.
Last spring, under the previous Iranian administration, Tehran changed its position and said it wanted a guarantee that Washington would stick to the deal while President Biden was in office. The new team under President Ebrahim Raisi has returned to the original permanent guarantee claim.
In recent weeks, Western diplomats said they had begun to see demands for guarantees as a key target for Mr Raisi’s negotiators. Mr Raisi is seen as a possible successor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has himself called for guarantees.
Two Western diplomats said ensuring Khamenei is not embarrassed again if the US withdraws in the future appears to be a top policy objective.
“Without guarantees, many in Tehran fear that sanctions relaxation will be ineffective, unsustainable and perhaps even detrimental to Iran’s economy as the specter of re-imposed sanctions looms over long-term planning,” said Ali Vaez, Iran Project Director at Crisis Group. in a report published on Monday.
In recent months, Washington has begun to respond to Iran’s concerns.
On Nov. 1, Mr Biden and British, French and German leaders on the fringes of the Group of 20 nations in Rome issued a statement aimed at directly addressing Iran’s concerns, diplomats say.
“In that sense, we welcome President Biden’s clearly demonstrated commitment to bring the US back to full compliance with the JCPOA and to maintain full compliance as long as Iran does the same,” the leaders said.
But Iran has rejected verbal commitments. One problem, Western diplomats say, is that Iran has at different times sought different types of assurances from Washington – political, economic and legal. To make matters worse, Iran refuses direct negotiations with the United States
US and European officials say they are exploring ideas they could put to Iran, which could inspire additional confidence. Ideas being weighed are promises of US Treasury commitments for an agreed list of international banks and corporations, or a political commitment to some sort of phasing-in of future sanctions. However, these would fall short of iron legal guarantees.
“Basically, suggestions are on the table for how economic actors can find some comfort if a new American administration re-imposes sanctions,” said a person close to the talks. “In a democratic country, in three years, [there] may be a new president and things may change. So we’re working on it, but there are no real magic ideas.”
write to Laurence Norman at [email protected]
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