The return to the nuclear deal between Iran and the United States continues to be deadlocked. Since last April, the two countries have been maintaining indirect contacts, while at the same time the Vienna talks between the other signatories to the pact - Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom - have been taking place with the aim of reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The EU-sponsored Vienna talks have now gone on for six rounds of negotiations. The last session took place last June, and although the Biden administration has repeatedly expressed its intention to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, in practice it is not so easy. Iran, under the presidency of Hasan Rohani, and the United States, during the Obama administration with the current US president, Joe Biden, as vice-president, concluded a nuclear deal in 2015 that limited Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.
In 2018, Donald Trump's administration decided to unilaterally withdraw from this agreement and re-impose sanctions on the Islamic Republic, imposing a "policy of suffocation" on the Persian country. Many European countries criticised this decision, while countries such as Israel, a great enemy of Iran, applauded the reimposition of sanctions. Since the US pulled out of the JCPOA, Iran has been skirting the nuclear deal by enriching a small amount of uranium to 60 per cent, while the nuclear deal limited Tehran's programme to enrichment of up to 3.67 per cent, enough to power a civilian nuclear reactor.
In another attempt to pressure the US to lift economic sanctions on Iran to return to the nuclear deal, Iranian President Hasan Rohani has asserted that his country is capable of enriching uranium to 90 per cent. "If one day 90 per cent is needed for any reactor, we can achieve it," he said. Iran also informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in early July that it had begun the process of producing enriched uranium metal. The Islamic Republic justified this decision by explaining that this uranium would be used for medical purposes.
Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, explained that the first silicon fuel plate will soon be produced using 20 per cent enriched uranium for medical purposes. "This move, which will significantly improve the quality and quantity of radiopharmaceuticals, will make the Islamic Republic one of the advanced countries in nuclear technology," he said. However, uranium metal could also be used to make the core of a nuclear bomb, and countries such as France, Germany and the UK have expressed "grave concern" at the news and urged a deal on Iran's nuclear programme to be reached "as soon as possible".
The British, French and German foreign ministers said in a joint statement that "Iran has no credible civilian need for the R&D and production of uranium metal, which is a key step in the development of a nuclear weapon". "With its latest steps, Iran is threatening the success of the Vienna talks, despite the progress made in six rounds of negotiations," they added. Despite the urgency of European countries as well as the United States to reach an agreement with Iran, the latter has already advanced that the talks will not resume until "mid-August" at the earliest once Iran's newly elected president, Ebrahim Raisí, is sworn in.
Signatories to the pact, after the latest round of negotiations, had shared their hope of resuming the seventh and final session before the ultra-conservative Raisi is sworn in in August. Iran has already indicated that it will not be until the new government is formed that the Vienna talks will resume. This announcement comes as a blow to Western powers. The newly elected president, Ebrahim Raisi, has said he will continue with the talks, but his stance is characteristically tougher than that of the current Iranian president, Hasan Rohani.
Rohani, for his part, has regretted that during his term in office it has not been possible to reach an agreement and has admitted that his government "missed the opportunity" to reach a conclusion. He said he hoped that "the next government will be able to complete this work. We regret that five or six months have been lost". Ebrahim Raisi takes over the baton of the negotiations for a return to the nuclear deal, which means that negotiations will still take time.
A US State Department spokesman confirmed to Reuters that Iran had asked for more time before resuming talks in Vienna because of the presidential transition. "When Iran completes its process, we are prepared to plan our return to Vienna to continue our talks," he added. "We remain interested in seeking mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, although as [Secretary of State Antony Blinken] has made clear, this offer will not be on the table indefinitely," the spokesman added.