The United States and Iran have agreed to begin indirect talks on returning to 2015’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, the U.S. State Department said in a statement.

This news comes about three years after the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear accord. The Biden administration has been trumpeting for talks with Tehran since before the November election, but at first, Iran was stalling.

The negotiations will begin in Vienna next week. They will include bringing the Iranians back into compliance regarding nuclear enrichment and the easing of economic sanctions that the U.S. imposed after the Trump administration left the JCPOA in 2018, Ned Price, a State Department spokesman said.

“We have agreed to participate in talks with our European, Russian and Chinese partners to identify the issues involved in a mutual return to compliance,” Price said. “These remain early days, and we don’t anticipate an immediate breakthrough as there will be difficult discussions ahead. But we believe this is a healthy step forward.”

“We do not anticipate presently that there will be direct talks between the United States and Iran through this process, though the United States remains open to them,” he added.

The agreement was negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 which include the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia — plus Germany.

The other JCPOA signatories said last week that the participants “emphasized their commitment to preserving the JCPOA and discussed modalities to ensure the return to its full and effective implementation,” in a statement after their virtual meeting.

However, back in January, French President Emmanuel Macron had thrown a curve at the potential talks when he said that any new negotiations should include Saudi Arabia. His comments drew a heated response from Iran. 

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a television interview in late January that JCPOA “is a multilateral international agreement ratified by Security Council Resolution 2231, and is by no means re-negotiable and the parties to it are clear and unchangeable.”

A few days later, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also shot down any prospect of the Saudis joining the talks, saying, “No clause of the JCPOA will change and no person will be added to the JCPOA… The JCPOA will remain as it is, and there is a UN Security Council document attached to it for the worse or better.”

JCPOA’s Bumpy Road Ahead
Foreign Ministers from the P5+1 nations, the European Union, and Iran in Vienna, Austria, on November 24, 2014. (U.S. Department of State)

Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s nuclear negotiator, said that the “return by the U.S. to the nuclear deal does not require any negotiation, and the path is quite clear.”

“The U.S. can return to the deal and stop breaching the law in the same way it withdrew from the deal and imposed illegal sanctions on Iran,” Araghchi said on Iran state-run television.

However, while Tehran is focusing on removing sanctions, there is an increasing concern from Western intelligence officials that Iran is hiding from international inspectors key components of parts and pumps for centrifuges used to enrich uranium to the weapons-grade level of 90 percent. These parts are housed by members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Iran has long stated that it has no plans to build or possess nuclear weapons. Yet, at the same time, it has frequently stated that its goal is to destroy Israel and has said it can reach the 90 percent threshold easily if it chooses to. 

Iran’s claims of not wanting to construct a nuclear weapon were debunked in January 2018, when an Israeli Mossad operation stole the Iranian nuclear archives from a warehouse in Iran. The archives clearly spell out Iran’s efforts towards a nuclear weapon. 

So while one side is focused on economic sanctions and the other is worrying about the enrichment of uranium, neither side is seemingly ready to compromise. Nevertheless, it seems that the other members of the UN Security Council will probably push for a mutual compromise. Yet, it is unsure whether such a compromise will come to fruition.

The wildcard here is the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). They’ve made it clear that they won’t accept a nuclear weapons-capable Iran.