On Wednesday, the two-day round of indirect negotiations in Qatar between Iran and the United States ended without a breakthrough. This meeting, brokered by the European Union, was intended to break the deadlock in talks on Washington's return to the Iranian nuclear deal, but has not borne fruit, with both sides accusing each other.
EU mediator Enrique Mora lamented on his Twitter account that the talks, which he described as "intense", had not produced the progress Brussels had hoped for. "We will continue to work with greater urgency to get a key agreement back on track for non-proliferation and regional stability," the Spaniard concluded.
Dinner in Brussels with EU High Representative @JosepBorrellF and US Special Envoy for Iran @Rob_Malley . In depth conversation about #JCPOA and regional perspectives in the wider Middle East. Malley reiterated firm US commitment to come back to the deal. pic.twitter.com/vsdezTRQjM— Enrique Mora (@enriquemora_) June 23, 2022
"We are disappointed that Iran, once again, has not responded positively to the EU initiative and therefore no progress has been made," a US State Department official told AFP, noting that Tehran "raised issues totally unrelated to the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the official name for the nuclear deal] and is apparently not ready to make a fundamental decision on whether it wants to revive the agreement or bury it".
The meeting was prompted by a visit by Josep Borrell to Tehran, with the aim of unfreezing talks that had been stalled for three months. Iran then demanded the removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran's elite army group, from the State Department's list of terrorist groups, but the White House refused.
In addition, Iran has demanded legal guarantees that future US administrations will be obliged to uphold the commitments of the deal, which is strongly opposed by the Republican Party. But Washington considers these demands unrealistic. "We told them that there is no legal way to bind a future Administration and we thought, along with the other P5+1 countries [China, Russia, Germany, Britain and France] and the EU coordinator, that this issue had been closed," a US official told Reuters. "The prospects for a post-Doha deal are worse than before Doha and will get worse by the day," the official lamented.
However, Tehran's assessment of the meeting was much more optimistic. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian described the meeting as "positive" during a telephone call with his Qatari counterpart, stressing that an agreement was still possible. "We are determined to continue negotiating. I insist that we are making serious efforts to reach a good, solid and lasting agreement", said the Iranian diplomacy chief, for whom this is possible "if the United States is realistic".
An endless race
The JCPOA is an international treaty agreed in 2015 by the Obama administration and the then moderate government of Hassan Rouhani to end the Iranian nuclear crisis, which was triggered by Tehran's launch of a nuclear programme in 2003 and led to the imposition of tough international sanctions. Iran has always maintained that its programme was for civilian purposes, but UN experts and Western countries claimed that the Islamic Republic was pursuing the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
With this agreement, the parties, which included Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China, as well as Iran and the United States, provided for the lifting of sanctions in exchange for strict controls on the Shiite country's nuclear programme to ensure its exclusively civilian use.
However, in 2018, Donald Trump ordered the US to withdraw from the JCPOA, reinstating sanctions on Tehran and demanding concessions on its domestic and foreign policy, under a campaign of "maximum pressure". Iran responded a few months later by gradually dropping several of the treaty's provisions and relaunching uranium enrichment beyond civilian needs.
Joe Biden's arrival in the Oval Office appeared to open the door to a quick Washington return to the deal, and since April 2021 meetings have been taking place in Vienna between Iran and the so-called P4+1 (China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany), with the US indirectly participating. However, the sprint back soon turned into a long-distance race and, subsequently, an obstacle course. Now, the lack of progress may lead to negotiations failing to reach the finish line.
Tehran has recently removed several international surveillance cameras from its nuclear sites, and is already close to having enough enriched uranium to be able to join the club of nuclear powers.
A US return to the deal could facilitate the export of hitherto heavily sanctioned Iranian oil, which would also ease the global energy crisis in a context of high prices and allow the Islamic Republic to revive its economy, hard hit by the 'maximum pressure' campaign.