US Closer to Rejoining Iran Nuclear Deal as Talks Resume

Technicians work at the Arak heavy water reactor’s secondary circuit near Arak, Iran, 150 miles southwest of the capital Tehran, on Dec. 23, 2019, as officials and media visit the site. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

World powers are meeting in Vienna to see if the United States and Iran can set aside their differences, and U.S. economic sanctions, to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons.

Top U.S. diplomats re-engaged with Tehran on Tuesday in indirect talks to save the Iran nuclear deal, an agreement that former U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally put on life-support nearly three years earlier.

Coordinated by the European Union, the summit in Vienna returns negotiators to the city where the historic deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was signed in 2015. Though the talks today did not put American and Iranian diplomats in the same room, the hope is that they will bring about direct parley between Washington and Tehran and a thaw in relations.

Even though U.S. President Joe Biden says he is willing to rejoin the deal, the talks might fizzle out due to a lack of trust, pressure from political forces in both the U.S. and Iran opposed to the deal, and irreconcilable differences.

Iran is holding presidential elections in June and a victory by a hardliner could kill the deal. Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s moderate president who negotiated the deal in 2015, cannot run for another term.

During the Obama administration, the original deal had been hailed as a major breakthrough in relations between the U.S. and Tehran. Diplomats hoped it would become a central pillar for Middle East peace by halting Iran from developing nuclear weapons in exchange for lifting crippling U.S. economic sanctions on Iran. Once Trump took office, however, those hopes were dashed.

Calling it the “worst deal ever negotiated,” Trump sought to force Tehran to buckle under sanctions and sign up to even tougher terms, as favored by Israel and hawkish politicians in Washington. But the Trump administration’s “maximum-pressure” policy failed. Instead of weakening Iran’s regime, Tehran stepped up its support for its allies in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Shia militias in Iraq and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. Amid survived internal strife caused by Trump’s expanded sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, Iran’s nuclear program has only accelerated.

In January 2020, Trump brought the conflict with Iran to a dangerous low point with the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani via U.S. drone attack.

The EU, which acted as the chief mediator between the U.S., China, Russia and Iran in 2015, had celebrated the deal as a signature achievement and an important example of its ability to solve international problems. The United Kingdom also signed the deal and continues to support it.

After Trump withdrew from the agreement in May 2018, the EU was unable to keep it from unraveling further but the former president’s aggressive tactics seriously damaged relations with European allies. The U.S. stance angered European companies eager to do business in Iran.

Biden’s new approach has earned accolades in Tehran.

“We find this position realistic and promising. It could be the start of correcting the bad process that had taken diplomacy to a dead end,” said Ali Rabiei, the Iranian government spokesman, on the eve of Tuesday’s talks.

Since the U.S. dropped out of the deal, Iran too has broken the deal’s terms. It is enriching uranium and stockpiling it beyond the agreement’s limits, building more advanced centrifuges and making uranium metal used for warheads. It is now estimated that the time Iran needs to build a bomb’s worth of fissile material has narrowed from a year to three months.

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