April 17, 2021

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‘A game of chicken’: US to hold indirect talks with Iran over nuclear deal amid conflicting political pressure

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WASHINGTON – The Biden administration will participate in high-stakes multilateral negotiations on Tuesday that could determine the fate of the Iran nuclear deal

The U.S. and Iran will not hold direct talks, but both countries will have diplomats in Vienna for negotiations facilitated by a top European Union official and other parties to the 2015 agreement, including France, China and Russia. Under the Obama-era deal, Iran agreed to cap its nuclear enrichment, among other steps, in exchange for international sanctions relief.  

Former President Donald Trump withdrew from agreement in 2018 and re-imposed crippling sanctions on Iran, arguing his “maximum pressure” campaign would force Iran to negotiate a broader agreement. But Iran rebuffed Trump’s entreaties and, amid a spike in U.S.-Iran tensions, Tehran began breaching the deal’s limits on its nuclear enrichment.

Timeline: How tensions escalated with Iran since Trump withdrew US from nuclear deal

President Joe Biden has promised to return to the deal – if Iran comes back into compliance. But Washington and Tehran have been at loggerheads for months over who should take the first step.

Biden’s special envoy for Iran, Rob Malley, said there is a sense of urgency because of how much enriched uranium Iran has amassed in recent years.

“They have 10 times more enriched uranium than they did” before the U.S. left the deal, Malley said in an interview Friday with the PBS NewsHour. “So by the simple test, are we better off today than we were then? No, we’re worse off.”

Malley will lead the U.S. delegation to Vienna.

Iran Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Khonsari talks with Belgian Foreign minister before their meeting in Brussels on Jan. 11, 2018, to discuss the Iran nuclear deal.

Iran’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, said in a tweet on Friday the goal of Tuesday’s talks is to “Rapidly finalize sanction-lifting & nuclear measures for choreographed removal of all sanctions, followed by Iran ceasing remedial measures.”

“No Iran-US meeting. Unnecessary,” Zarif added.

Managing expectations

Tuesday’s talks in Vienna could involve crafting a roadmap back into compliance, although Biden administration officials have played down the potential for quick progress.

Ned Price, the State Department’s chief spokesman, said the primary focus on Tuesday will be to determine what steps Iran would need to take to come back into compliance and what sanctions the U.S. would need to lift in return. 

“We don’t anticipate an early or immediate breakthrough,” Price told reporters on Monday. But he said the talks represented a “healthy step forward.”  

Price said the U.S. remains open to direct talks with Iran but for now, the negotiations will unfold in “working groups” set up by the EU with other parties to the deal, including Iran.  

Progressives to Biden: Hurry up

Tuesday’s meeting comes as the Biden administration faces conflicting political pressures at home over its dealings with Iran.

Progressives are demanding a speedy U.S. return to the deal, arguing that any further delay is dangerous. 

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., suggested the Biden administration is playing “a game of chicken” in the refusal to go first and lift sanctions on Iran.  

“I don’t understand what the delay is,” Khanna said during a March 31 briefing hosted by liberal anti-war groups. “Iran had 102 kilograms of enriched uranium when Trump took office. They have 2.5 tons of enriched uranium now.” 

This photo released Thursday, July 2, 2020, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows a building after it was damaged by a fire, at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility some 200 miles south of the capital Tehran, Iran.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said the longer the Biden administration waits, the harder it will be to revive the deal. 

“The United States was the first to leave, and so, the United States shouldn’t be wary of taking the first step back into the agreement,” he said during the briefing. Murphy said he has publicly and privately urged Biden administration officials to adopt “a compliance for compliance approach,” in which the U.S. and Iran synchronize their steps back into the deal.   

What about ballistic missiles, terrorist support?

But Republicans and some hawkish Democrats want Biden to hold out for a broader deal that not only curbs Iran’s nuclear program but also limits its ballistic missile program, its support for terrorist groups, and other malign activities.    

A bipartisan group of more than 40 senators – including the top Democrat and top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – recently sent a letter to Biden urging him to address concerns “beyond Tehran’s nuclear program” and to consult with Israel and other U.S. allies as it negotiates with Iran.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard launches a missile as part of a drill on Jan. 26, 2021.

“Iran continues to pose a threat to U.S. and international security through exporting arms, including highly accurate missiles, supporting Shia militias that target U.S. service members, and supporting terrorist organizations and other malign actors throughout the region,” Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the committee’s chairman, wrote in the letter signed by a raft of other lawmakers.

“We also remain concerned about Iran’s continued human rights abuses of its own citizens and the increasing size and capabilities of its ballistic and cruise missile programs,” the letter reads. 

Iranian diplomat: ‘Window is closing’ for Biden to rejoin nuclear deal

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