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The Iran nuclear deal: can Joe Biden salvage it?

US joins EU Vienna talks as president seeks to deliver on key campaign pledge

European diplomats were yesterday rushing between US and Iranian officials in Vienna as talks got under way to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Breathing new life into the deal negotiated by his former boss, Barack Obama, is seen by Joe Biden as “the first potential thaw in diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington” since Donald Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018, The Wall Street Journal reports.

US and Iranian representatives are not meeting directly, but working through European intermediaries alongside officials representing other signatories to the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), including Russia and China. 

Both the Biden administration and Iran have said they want to re-enter the agreement, however “a carefully choreographed series of moves from Tehran and Washington would be required to make that happen”, Politico says.

The aim of the first talks, scheduled to last 10 days in the Austrian capital, is to “identify concrete measures” that the US and Iran “can take to return to compliance with the agreement”, the news site adds.

This includes “steps Iran would need to take in order to return to compliance with the deal”, Al Jazeera says, as well as “potential relief from US sanctions imposed on Iran for violating the agreement”.

Enrique Mora, a senior EU official overseeing the negotiations, described the joint commission meeting as “constructive” in a tweet sent after talks closed yesterday. Mora added that “there’s unity and ambition for a joint diplomatic process with two expert groups on nuclear implementation and sanctions lifting”.

Biden has pledged to restore the agreement by bringing Iran back into compliance with limits on uranium enrichment. But achieving a breakthrough is “further complicated” by presidential elections taking place in Iran in June, The Times reports.

Trump’s decision to pull out of the deal “badly undercut the position of Iranian moderates who supported it in the face of grave doubts from the regime and political hardliners”, the paper adds. Fears of the same thing happening again are likely to make Iranian officials keen to secure concessions from the US before any agreement.

US officials have made it clear that they do not “foresee any early breakthrough”, Al Jazeera reports, with State Department spokesperson Ned Price telling reporters on Monday that “we don’t underestimate the scale of the challenges ahead”.

“These are early days. We don’t anticipate an early or immediate breakthrough as these discussions, we fully expect, will be difficult”, Price added.

US officials also hope that the talks can be used as a springboard for “engaging Tehran on other issues of concern”, The Wall Street Journal says, including Iran’s missile programme, which is seen as “a threat to Middle East stability”.

The deal explained

The JCPOA was signed in July 2015 by Iran and six countries known as the P5+1. The countries are the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members – the US, France, the UK, China and Russia – plus Germany.

The deal involved Iran agreeing to reduce its number of centrifuges – machines that enrich uranium – by two-thirds, while also reducing its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98% and limiting the stockpile’s level of enrichment at 3.67%.

Iran also agreed to give inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, access to its nuclear facilities. Prior to Trump’s withdrawal, the IAEA repeatedly found Iran to be honouring the deal.

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