Talks in Brussels to Precede Vienna Negotiations

European Union Deputy Secretary-General Enrique Mora traveled to Tehran Oct. 14 to discuss the resumption of negotiations to restore the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, but it appears that Iran is still not ready to resume indirect talks with the United States. Mora coordinated the first six rounds of discussions in Vienna aimed to revive the accord, which is also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Negotiations have remained stalled since the sixth round concluded in June 2021.

Mora met with Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani to review Iran’s plans to resume negotiations with the other members of the deal – China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom – and the United States, in Vienna. Before the meeting, he tweeted that it was “crucial to pick up talks from where we left last June.”

Following the meeting between Mora and Bagheri Kani, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian described the discussion in Tehran as “positive” in a call with his Russian counterpart, but said that, instead of immediately resuming negotiations in Vienna, talks between Iran and EU officials would continue in Brussels within the next two weeks to find “practical solutions to current deadlock in Vienna.”

Politico reported Oct. 17 that the purpose of the Brussels meeting will be to clarify any questions Iran has about the text that was drafted and progress made during the first six rounds of talks. As of Oct. 18, however, no date for a Brussels meeting has been set, according to EU foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell. Borrell said Iranian officials requested a bilateral meeting with him and he is open to such discussions, but he “made it clear to the Iranians that time is not on their side and it’s better to go back to the negotiating table quickly.”

It remains unclear when, and under what conditions, the seventh round of talks in Vienna may commence. The United States, Russia, the European states, and China all appear to be in some agreement that discussions to restore the nuclear deal should pick up where they were left off in June.

“This is very important,” Russian ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, tweeted Oct. 11. “We should not resume the Vienna Talks on [the] JCPOA from scratch,” he said, noting that “during the previous six rounds of negotiations significant and very useful progress has been achieved.”

Ulyanov remarked on the rarity of Russia’s and the European Union’s converging positions on Iran and the pathway toward restoring the deal. He said the only slight difference is that “in our view there are no reasons for pessimism with regard to [the JCPOA],” he noted, adding that talks in Vienna will resume shortly, “no doubt about it.”

However, Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh commented Oct. 17 that the sixth round of talks ended over differences, not compromises – implying that Iran may not accept picking up negotiations where they paused in June.

Rhetoric from Iranian officials suggests that the Raisi administration may demand additional concessions from Washington during talks or a gesture of good faith before returning to the negotiating table. Creating conditions for the resumption of talks or coming with new demands would undoubtedly prolong the diplomatic process. During that time, Iran’s nuclear program may progress past the point by which the Biden administration believes the nonproliferation benefits of the accord can be restored.

On Oct. 2, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian declared via a state-run broadcasting network that the United States should preemptively release 10 billion dollars of Iran’s frozen funds as a sign of goodwill. He said that he “told the mediators if America’s intentions are serious then a serious indication was needed… by releasing at least $10 billion of blocked money.” But he also reiterated that Iran would return to talks in Vienna “soon.”

Despite Amirabdollahian’s declaration, his request does not appear to be an official precondition for the resumption of talks. Iranian officials later clarified that releasing the assets was not required for Iran to return to the Vienna process. Despite that, Tehran continues to send mixed messages about what may be necessary to restart talks. In a televised interview Oct. 18, Raisi remarked that Tehran is “serious about results-oriented negotiations,” and suggested that “for the other side, a readiness to lift sanctions can be a sign of their seriousness.”

Raisi may also be interested in a more gradual return to compliance with the accord. Amirabdollahian reportedly told Iranian lawmakers Oct. 17 that the negotiating team may pursue an action-for-action approach to restoring the nuclear deal, according to reporting from Amwaj.

The United States will not offer additional concessions before resuming talks, the State Department’s Special Envoy for Iran, Rob Malley, said during an Oct. 13 event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, but he reiterated that the Biden administration is prepared to lift sanctions in exchange for Iran’s compliance with the deal.

Malley also noted that if Iran approaches the negotiating table with demands that exceed the parameters of the original accord, the United States, too, is prepared to converse with Iran on issues that go beyond the breadth of the JCPOA.

While talks remain stalled, U.S. officials continue to warn that time to restore the deal is not indefinite, given Iran’s accelerating nuclear activities and the prolonged hiatus to talks. On Oct. 10, Iran announced that it had produced over 120 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 20 percent uranium-235. Iran’s 2020 nuclear law stipulated that the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran was to meet that benchmark within one year, by December 2021. Early achievement of that benchmark suggests that Iran’s enrichment to this level accelerated.

In an Oct. 13 meeting with the Israeli Foreign Minister, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed Iran’s nuclear advances and expressed that “we are getting close to a point at which returning to compliance with the JCPOA will not in and of itself recapture the benefits of the JCPOA.”—JULIA MASTERSON, research associate, and KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy

IAEA Access Issue Continues

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were denied access to a centrifuge manufacturing site in Karaj, Iran, raising new concerns about Tehran’s cooperation with the international nuclear watchdog. According to the agency, Iran blocked inspectors from installing new cameras at the facility Sept. 26 despite an agreement reached between Iran and the IAEA earlier in the month, which granted the IAEA access to several nuclear sites to service and replace the data storage for its monitoring equipment.

The agreement to grant the IAEA access to its remote monitoring equipment was reached Sept. 12, and likely staved off an IAEA Board of Governors resolution censuring Iran. States were considering a censure after the IAEA’s Sept. 7 report to the Board on Iran’s nuclear program raised concerns about Tehran’s failure to respond to IAEA requests to service the machines. The report also noted that four monitoring cameras were removed from the centrifuge component manufacturing workshop at Karaj when that facility was sabotaged in late June.

During an Oct. 19 trip to Washington, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi told the Financial Times that the IAEA needs access to Karaj immediately and that Iran’s failure to allow installation of new cameras has “seriously affected” the agency’s monitoring. Grossi stressed the importance of meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister to resolve this issue and said Oct. 20 that Iran had extended an invitation for a meeting in Tehran. He said he hoped to travel to Iran in the coming days and stressed again that IAEA's ability to provide a baseline on Iran's nuclear program is critical if the parties return to compliance with the JCPOA. 

According to Iran’s then-Ambassador to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, installing new equipment at Karaj was not covered by the Sept. 12 agreement, and Tehran was therefore not obligated to grant agency inspectors access to the facility. Gharibabadi’s ambassadorial term ended Oct. 15.

An IAEA statement released Sept. 26 confirms that agency inspectors were granted access to replace data storage and service cameras at all other locations captured by the Sept. 12 agreement from Sept. 20-22. The IAEA statement said it was critical to install new machines at Karaj, which the IAEA says is included in the Sept. 12 agreement, before activities at the facility resumed.

Gharibabadi said Sept. 26 that the centrifuge production facility is “still under security and judicial investigation” following a June sabotage attack.

Verifying that the remote monitoring equipment is functioning properly is particularly critical because the IAEA has not had access to certain nuclear facilities since February 2021, following Iran’s suspension of the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement and other monitoring measures. A special arrangement reached between Iran and the IAEA at the time permits the collection of data via remote monitoring equipment, like the cameras at the Karaj facility, but the agency will not have access to that collected information unless the 2015 nuclear deal is restored.

Ensuring continuous data collection is critical for IAEA efforts to maintain continuity of knowledge about Iran’s nuclear program and to resume JCPOA monitoring if the agreement is restored, the IAEA’s Sept. 7 report noted.

For more on the Sept. 12 agreement, see Iran, IAEA Reach Access Agreement.

Israeli Estimate on Iran’s Weaponization Unchanged

The head of Israel’s military intelligence said he sees “no progress” on an Iranian nuclear weapons program and the country remains two years from a bomb.

Major General Tamir Hayman said in an Oct. 1 interview that while Iran’s advances in uranium enrichment are “disturbing,” “all other aspects of the Iranian nuclear project,” including areas of weaponization, have not progressed. He assessed that it would still take Iran two years to develop a nuclear weapon if the decision were made to do so. The two-year timeframe for weaponization is similar to other assessments from Western intelligence officials.

Hayman also noted that “to the best of our knowledge” Iran is not “heading toward a breakout.” Breakout frequently refers to the time it would take for Iran to produce enough weapons-grade nuclear material for one bomb. While Iran was fully implementing its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the timeframe was 12 months. As a result of Iran’s violations of the deal, which began in May 2019, its breakout window has slipped to under two months.

The Biden administration says it will walk away from talks to restore the JCPOA if the 12-month breakout window cannot be restored. While breakout can be useful in assessing risk, it has limitations. As Hayman’s comments indicate, breakout is a measure of obtaining fissile material for a nuclear weapon—about 25 kilograms of uranium gas enriched to above 90 percent—and does not take into account the time needed to convert the material, fit it with an explosives package, and integrate it into a delivery system. Reductions in breakout also do not necessarily reflect changes in intention. Iran, for instance, still maintains that its goal is to return to compliance to the JCPOA, alongside the United States, and that its violations (and hence reduction in breakout) are a response to U.S. sanctions. (For more on breakout see, The Limits of Breakout Estimates in Assessing Iran’s Nuclear Program.)

Despite no evidence that Iran is moving forward with weaponization, Israeli officials continue to voice concerns about the Biden administration’s plan to continue talks with Iran on restoring the JCPOA. At the UN General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sept. 27 that Iran’s nuclear program “hit a watershed moment and so has our tolerance.” He said Iran’s plan is to “dominate the region… under a nuclear umbrella.” He suggested that Israel will continue to act against Iran’s nuclear program.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid also raised the threat of force. After meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken Oct. 13, Lapid warned that “there are moments when nations must use force to protect the world from evil… if a terror regime is going to acquire a nuclear weapon we must act.” He said that Iran will “race to the bomb” if Tehran does not believe that the “world is serious about stopping them.”

While Israel’s acts of sabotage have slowed Iran’s nuclear progress in the past, the gains have been relatively short-term as Tehran ratcheted up its nuclear activities in response. For instance, after an explosion at the Natanz enrichment facility’s power station in April, Iran announced it would begin enriching uranium to 60 percent, a level it had not pursued before the attack.

The United States is “prepared to turn to other options,” to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons if diplomacy fails, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Oct. 5, after meeting with his Israeli counterpart Eyal Hulata. Hulata reportedly pushed for the United States to pursue more stringent sanctions against Iran if talks to restore the JCPOA are not successful.

The Biden administration appeared to signal its willingness to continue ratcheting up sanctions pressure on Iran by reaching out to Beijing in September to discuss cuts to Chinese imports of Iranian oil. Under secondary sanctions reimposed by the Trump administration in violation of the JCPOA, the United States can penalize states that continue to purchase oil from Iran.

While Beijing cut Iranian oil purchases in the lead-up to negotiations on the JCPOA, China has generally opposed U.S. secondary sanctions, viewing them as an infringement on national sovereignty. Beijing is not alone in criticizing how the United States has wielded sanctions, particularly in recent years. Opposition and concern about U.S. sanctions reach suggests that any new U.S. efforts to increase pressure on Iran will struggle to obtain the same level of international support as they have in the past.

Iran Poll Shows Low Confidence in Future U.S. Sanctions Lifting

The majority of Iranians do not believe that the United States will honor its commitments under the JCPOA if the accord is restored, according to new data released by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and Iran Poll.

In an Oct. 18 report assessing the results of the poll, which was conducted in September 2021, Nancy Gallagher, Ebrahim Mohseni, and Clay Ramsey noted that 65 percent of Iranians said that the United States will not live up to its commitments under the JCPOA if it rejoins the deal. That number is up from 60 percent in February 2021. Despite this skepticism, a significant majority of Iranians still believe that if the deal is restored Iran’s economy will improve.About half of Iranians—51 percent—think that it is very likely or somewhat likely that the United States and Iran will reach an agreement on restoring the JCPOA. Overall support for the deal, however, has dropped from 70 percent in the 2015-2016 period to 48 percent in September 2021, according to the CISSM and IranPoll data.

The September 2021 poll also asked about confidence-building measures that the United States could take to ease tensions. The report noted that 83 percent of Iranians said that the United States lifting sanctions on Iran’s central bank would be very meaningful and 76 percent said it would be meaningful if the United States were to “condemn assassinations of Iranian scientists as violations of international law.” Seventy percent of respondents also said that it would be meaningful or very meaningful if the United States were to “remove all obstacles to Iran purchasing vaccines” or the necessary ingredients.

On sanctions policy, the report noted that 73 percent of Iranians believe that the United States is seeking to prevent humanitarian goods from reaching Iran and 61 percent believe that the United States “has already sanctioned Iran to fullest degree possible and it cannot make Iran’s economic conditions more difficult than current conditions even if it tries.” By contrast, 37 percent believe the United States can increase sanctions in a way that would “greatly worsen Iran’s economy.”

The full polling data, which covered a wide range of domestic and foreign policy-related issues, is available here.

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