Diplomats said Borrell was referring to Russia’s call for easing US sanctions on its future trade deals with Iran, first raised last Saturday, as a condition of participating in a revived deal.
A final text for a new deal is “essentially ready and on the table,” Borrell said, adding that he and his team would remain in touch with all stakeholders to overcome the remaining obstacles and finalize a deal.
But the indefinite hiatus could also potentially signal a rupture from which there is no going back and end any hope of the deal being restored.
“It’s certainly serious. If you lose momentum at this late stage, the dynamic will change in a way that could make it impossible to resume talks,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
A small number of outstanding differences between Iran and the United States that have yet to be resolved may also have contributed to the deadlock, diplomats said. These include how far the United States will go to strip organizations like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of terrorism designations, guarantees regarding the lifting of US sanctions, and the details of a prisoner swap that could bring freedom to detained US and other Western detainees Iranian prisons.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price cited the complex nature of the final stages of negotiations for the pause, adding that there are “external factors also intervening” to revitalize the Joint Coordinated Plan of Action, or JCPOA. as the deal is known.
He said the United States is unwilling to offer Russia any sanctions concessions to revive the Iran deal, stressing that the new sanctions against Russia are “completely and entirely independent of the JCPOA.”
Mikhail Ulyanov, Moscow’s envoy at the talks, told reporters that the rupture cannot be blamed solely on Russia. “There are others who have to settle their problems among themselves,” he said.
Iran was cautious in its comments after the pause was announced on Friday. Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Twitter he hopes the pause will create “momentum” to resolve remaining issues. “The successful conclusion of the talks will be the focus,” he said.
In the meantime, however, Western allies’ patience is ticking to wait for an agreement as Iran continues to accelerate its nuclear program. Iran has now advanced its enrichment and stockpiling of uranium to the point where it could be just weeks away from the threshold needed to build a nuclear weapon, and US officials have warned they will not allow the negotiations drag on indefinitely.
US officials have in the past raised the possibility of implementing a “Plan B” if talks fail, without specifying what the plan would entail. Options range from the imposition of even tougher sanctions to military action that could potentially fuel the global instability triggered by the Ukraine war through a second war in the Middle East.
“We’re not in that hellscape yet. We’re just stuck in purgatory,” Batmanghelidj said.
The talks in Vienna had focused on establishing a timeline to bring the United States and Iran back into alignment with the 2015 deal. Under a new deal, the United States would be expected to lift harsh new sanctions imposed after Trump’s withdrawal, and Iran would have to roll back advances later made on its nuclear program.
A deal was so close that a podium for the closing ceremonies had been erected at the Hotel Palais Coburg, where the talks were taking place. Iran has increasingly signaled its willingness to finalize the arrangement in recent weeks, diplomats say.
But the outbreak of the Ukraine war has shifted the geopolitical backdrop for the negotiations, and it’s now possible that the fate of the Iran deal will effectively be held hostage by the course of the war, diplomats say.
The deal would herald a return of Iranian oil to world markets and potentially mitigate price hikes caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and US sanctions on Russian oil. Russia has no interest in a drop in oil prices and may also feel it can use the Iran deal as leverage in future negotiations over Ukraine, analysts say.
“Vladimir Putin understands that reviving the nuclear deal with Iran means a lot more to Joe Biden than it does to him. Putin does not feel threatened by Iran’s nuclear advances, and Tehran’s isolation has served Russian interests,” said Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Iran had initially expressed irritation at Russia’s unexpected request and continued to signal that an agreement was near. But as of Wednesday, Iranian messaging switched, with officials blaming the United States.
A speech by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Thursday suggested Iran is eager to go ahead with a new deal. He said it would be a “great mistake” to bow to pressure from the United States and other powers, adding that it would be unwise to abandon Iran’s “progress” in nuclear science. “If we give it up now, who can we turn to in a couple of years?” he said.
Comments by former Vice President Mike Pence in an interview with an Israeli newspaper earlier this week that a future Republican administration would back out of a revived deal also didn’t help, said a senior Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, to um sensitive to discuss subjects.
Informal consultations are expected to continue, negotiators say, to find ways to complete the deal without Russia – something that would be complicated but not impossible. Russia will be assigned a key role in the implementation of the agreement, as the country will be responsible for shipping and storing Iran’s excess stocks of enriched uranium, for which another destination would have to be found.
But Tehran has also made it clear that Iran believes it cannot risk a public rift with Russia by turning its back on Russia’s concerns and aligning itself with the United States, according to a person familiar with the details of the talks and also spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.
The talks, which have involved diplomats from Britain, France, Germany and China, as well as Iran, the United States and Russia, have been intense since the beginning of the year, and it will also do the negotiators good to take a break, diplomats said. The Iranian and US delegations gathered in separate hotels, with diplomats from the other nations commuting between them, because Iran refused to hold direct talks with the United States.
Enrique Mora, the European Union envoy tasked with coordinating the talks, said negotiators needed to pause to “keep a good spirit”.