Analysis: Are the US and Iran about to restore the nuclear deal?

Observers are waiting on the US’s reply to the EU’s latest proposal, with Iran submitting a ‘reasonable’ response.

The atomic symbol and the Iranian flag are seen in this illustration
Iran's nuclear ambitions have been a source of tension between Tehran and the West for years, even though Iran denies it is trying to obtain nuclear weapons [File: Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters]

Tehran, Iran – Iran and the United States have inched closer to an agreement on restoring their 2015 nuclear deal after 16 months of painstaking negotiations, but everything could hinge on what happens in the coming days.

All eyes are now on Washington as it prepares to submit its response to Iran’s written comments on a “final” text proposed by the European Union at the end of talks in Vienna earlier this month.

The bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, on Monday said the Iranian response was “reasonable”, officially confirming the view a number of European diplomats had anonymously conveyed to Western media outlets since last week.

US Department of State spokesman Ned Price told reporters late Monday that a response will be given as soon as internal consultations are completed, adding that “we will not take one day longer than is necessary”.

This came shortly after Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani accused the US of “procrastinating” in its response.

“The [US] response was supposed to have come already,” Borrell said, in comments that could put pressure on Washington, adding that a meeting in Vienna to seal the deal could happen soon.

Iran has seemingly abandoned a demand to take its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) off a US “terror” list, an issue that was deemed a non-starter by the administration of US President Joe Biden after months of media scrutiny and local opposition.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the deal is formally known, was signed in 2015, putting curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of multilateral sanctions.

In 2018, the US unilaterally abandoned the accord, imposing harsh sanctions that are in effect to this day.

Al Jazeera spoke to several experts about the current state of the nuclear deal talks and the pitfalls they could still face.

‘No to new confrontations’

Diako Hosseini, a Tehran-based foreign policy analyst, believes the finish line may be in sight.

“Even though there can be no absolute assurance of success until the last moment, we’re probably only several weeks away at the most from success,” he told Al Jazeera.

Hosseini said while the EU and Russia’s reasons differ, in supporting the nuclear deal they are both pursuing a similar goal in that “they don’t welcome a new front in confrontations”.

“Reviving the JCPOA is what they need to reduce international tensions and refrain from being exposed to hard choices.”

According to unconfirmed details of a potential agreement leaked in recent days, Tehran has called for two and a half years of guaranteed US sanctions relief, and support from other parties if Washington unilaterally reneges on the accord again.

Hosseini pointed out that there could be no absolute guarantees as governments only remain committed to such agreements as long as the benefits outweigh losses, and this is something leaders in Tehran are aware of.

“No guarantee can prevent the US from again exiting the JCPOA, but Iran hopes to impact US costs and therefore its calculus for exiting the deal through obtaining stronger assurances,” he said.

‘Difficult balancing act’

Trita Parsi, executive vice president at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said “the ball is in Biden’s court”.

“If this drags on too long, it will get too close to the midterm elections, which will deeply upset Biden’s own allies in Congress,” Parsi told Al Jazeera.

“The United States wants to give a response that will not be a complete acceptance of what the Iranians have proposed but will also not allow the Iranians to make further changes. This is a difficult balancing act.”

According to Parsi, some of the changes suggested by Iran to the text are perceived as beneficial to Europe as well, as they protect European companies investing or trading with Iran.

“Ultimately, providing assurances against a second American exit from the agreement, strengthens the agreement,” he said.

Parsi argued that such changes would have been unnecessary had the US not abandoned the agreement in the first place, saying “this shows the cost the US inflicted on itself” by exiting the JCPOA.

But the changes have also angered opponents of the deal inside and outside the US, who argue that what is transpiring is the opposite of the “longer, stronger and broader” agreement Biden had initially promised.

Several US senators have lashed out against the contents of the talks in recent days, which prompted the National Security Council to react by denying that the US is giving Iran major “concessions”.

Meanwhile, Israel remains the biggest opponent of the nuclear deal, and one major reason the US has delayed its response is believed to be consultations with Israeli officials.

Over the past week, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid has warned both the White House and French President Emmanuel Macron against restoring the JCPOA, saying refusing to abandon the deal would signal “weakness”.

‘Credible cooperation’

Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, believes the JCOPA remains the best option for both Tehran and Washington, but that the talks cannot drag on forever.

“If the United States shows flexibility in responding to Iran’s sanctions-related demands, Tehran cannot pocket the compromise and then ask for more,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that Tehran has used such a tactic in the past.

“If Iran wants a deal, Tehran must strongly signal to the Biden administration that these proposed revisions are the end of the line.”

Davenport pointed out that the longer the talks drag on, the smaller the chance for a restored JCPOA, more risk that Iran’s nuclear advances cross a US red line, and more chance that domestic opposition in both countries will erode the political will to reach an agreement.

The two countries have also been at odds over a probe by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into traces of unexplained uranium particles found at several Iranian sites.

Iran has demanded the probe be closed for the agreement to move forward, but there have also been reports that a clause could be added to the agreement that stipulates the probe may be closed if Iran fully cooperates with the nuclear watchdog.

In an interview with CNN on Monday, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi stressed that “dropping probes is not something the IAEA does or will ever do without a proper process”.

Davenport also emphasised that Iran is the only country that can put an end to the probe.

“Nothing short of credible cooperation from Iran will close the file,” she said.

“Any perception that the IAEA is being pressured to close the investigation prematurely would have devastating consequences for the agency’s integrity and broader efforts to prevent nonproliferation.”

Source: Al Jazeera