Iran and the US have resumed indirect talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 nuclear deal that was abandoned by former President Donald Trump. The negotiations, which are mediated by the European Union and attended by the other signatories of the deal, aim to restore the limits on Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of US sanctions.
What is the Iran nuclear deal?
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as it is formally known, was signed in 2015 between Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US. It was a landmark agreement that put strict curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme, which Tehran insisted was only for peaceful purposes, but the international community did not trust.
Under the JCPOA, Iran agreed to:
- Reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98% to 300kg for 15 years
- Limit its level of uranium enrichment to 3.67% for 15 years
- Restrict its number and type of centrifuges – machines that spin uranium gas to increase its purity – at two facilities
- Redesign a heavy-water reactor so it could not produce any weapons-grade plutonium
- Allow international inspectors to monitor its nuclear sites and verify its compliance
In return, Iran got a lifting of economic sanctions that had crippled its economy.
Why did the US withdraw from the deal?
In 2018, Mr Trump announced that he was pulling the US out of the deal, calling it “the worst deal ever negotiated”. He argued that the JCPOA did not do enough to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon in the future, and that it did not address Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its involvement in regional conflicts.
Mr Trump then reinstated the US sanctions on Iran, as well as imposing new ones, targeting key sectors such as oil, banking and shipping. The sanctions have caused severe hardship for millions of Iranians, who have seen their currency lose value, their prices soar and their access to foreign goods and medicine restricted.
How has Iran responded to the US withdrawal?
Iran initially tried to salvage the deal with the remaining parties, but after a year of waiting for them to provide economic relief from the US sanctions, it began to scale back its compliance with the JCPOA. It has since breached many of the key limits set by the deal, such as:
- Increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium to more than 15 times the limit
- Enriching uranium to up to 60%, which is close to weapons-grade level
- Installing advanced centrifuges at its enrichment facilities
- Reducing its cooperation with international inspectors
Iran has said that these steps are reversible and that it will return to full compliance if the US lifts all sanctions.
What are the prospects for reviving the deal?
President Joe Biden has said that he wants to rejoin the deal if Iran returns to compliance. However, both sides have insisted that the other must make the first move. The indirect talks in Vienna, which began in April 2021 and resumed in November after a five-month hiatus, are aimed at breaking this impasse and finding a way to synchronise their actions.
The talks are complicated by several factors, such as:
- The election of Iran’s new hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi, who has taken a tough stance on negotiations and demanded more concessions from the US
- The opposition of Israel and some US lawmakers to any deal that does not address Iran’s regional behaviour and missile programme
- The growing impatience of both sides with the slow pace of progress and their threats of pursuing alternative options
The EU official chairing the talks, Enrique Mora, said he felt “extremely positive” after the first meeting on Monday. He said all parties had shown “a sense of urgency” and agreed to work on a draft text based on previous discussions. However, he also acknowledged that there were still “important political and technical differences” to overcome.