After the last round of indirect negotiations between the United States and Iran, EU High Representative Josep Borrell circulated a draft agreement to restore the 2015 nuclear deal that he referred to as “final.”
In an Aug. 8 tweet, he said “what can be negotiated has been negotiated,” and that it is time for political decisions to be made in the capitals. If the “answers are positive, then we can sign this deal,” he said.
Borrell’s decision to end the talks and table a final text appeared to take Iran by surprise. While Tehran rejected the description of the draft as “final,” the Iranian negotiating team did provide a response to the EU by the Aug. 15 deadline.
Although Borrell had said there is no further room for compromise, Iran raised several issues with the text in its Aug. 15 response. Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said that Iran’s concerns were focused on sanctions guarantees and called for greater US flexibility on the issue. He said Iran needs to see a “realistic approach” from Washington.
The issue of sanctions guarantees has been central to Iran’s concerns about a restored JCPOA since talks to revive the accord began, as Tehran wants to ensure that Iran will continue to benefit from complying with the JCPOA even if a future US president withdraws from the deal. The US political systems, however, makes it difficult for President Joseph Biden to provide much in the way of guarantees beyond his term.
Comments from other officials in the Raisi administration characterizing the United States as having “retreated” on several issues may be an indication that Tehran is laying the groundwork domestically to sell a return to the nuclear deal. Amirabdollahian said Aug. 15 that “what the people want from us is an outcome from these negotiations.”
However, it remains unclear if the sanctions assurances that Iran is seeking are reasonable and can be agreed to by the United States and P4+1 parties to the accord (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) or if Iran might raise additional issues down the road—a negotiating tactic it has used in the past.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in an Aug. 16 press briefing that the Biden administration is “in the process of studying” Iran’s comments, but he also reiterated that the United States agrees with Borrell’s assessment that “what could be negotiated over the course of these past 16, 17 months, has been negotiated.”
EU spokesperson Nabila Massrali said the EU is reviewing Iran’s response and consulting with the United States and the other JCPOA participants. In comments to the press, unnamed European officials gave mixed assessments of Iran’s response. One was quoted as saying Iran’s asks were “tricky,” while others described the response as encouraging and said it contained no significant objections.
The United States has not publicly discussed its position on the final text, but Price confirmed on Aug. 15 that the United States would provide its response to Borrell by his requested deadline. US Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley said in an Aug. 12 interview with PBS News Hour that the US team is “considering the text very carefully to make sure that it lives up to the president’s very clear guidance” that the deal is “consistent with US national security interest.”
US officials had said that the Biden administration was ready to accept the draft Borrell tabled at the Doha talks in late June, but the new Aug. 8 text included several substantive changes, including a reference to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation into Iran’s failure to declare nuclear materials and activities, as required by its legally binding safeguards agreement with the agency. While that investigation is separate from the JCPOA, Tehran insisted on tying the two processes together during the most recent round of talks in Vienna.
The Iranian response to the EU did not mention the language Borrell included to try and address Tehran’s demand that IAEA’s investigation be closed prior to reimplementation of the JCPOA, suggesting that Iran may have accepted Borrell’s proposed wording (see below for details.)
While both the Biden and Raisi administration continue to profess support for the JCPOA, officials from both countries are previewing planned steps if efforts to restore the nuclear deal fail.
Price said on Aug. 15 that the United States will continue “vigorous enforcement” of sanctions on Iran and pressure the country diplomatically. Amirabdollahian said on Aug. 15 that “we have our own Plan B” if talks fail. While he did not provide specifics, Iran is likely to take steps to further advance its nuclear program. Iran has threatened recently to ratchet up enrichment to 90 percent uranium-235, a level considered weapons grade.