Iran Nuclear Talks to Resume Amid Growing Doubts About a Deal
(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. and Iran will resume talks Nov. 29 on reviving the 2015 agreement that imposed limits on Tehran’s nuclear program, after a five-month delay that fueled skepticism that the two sides will be able to bridge differences over sanctions relief and the permanence of the deal.
The talks -- in which the U.S. and Iran don’t speak face-to-face but through European and Russian intermediaries -- will reconvene for a seventh round in Vienna. Iran’s top nuclear negotiator and deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, said agreement on the date came after a phone call with Enrique Mora, the European Union envoy who has helped mediate the talks. The EU and the U.S. confirmed the date in separate statements soon after.
Participants will continue to discuss “the prospect of a possible return of the United States” to the accord “and how to ensure the full and effective implementation of the agreement by all sides,” the EU said in a statement Wednesday.
Oil markets extended earlier declines after the announcement, with West Texas Intermediate crude falling as much as 4.7%.
“This window of opportunity will not be open forever,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters. “We certainly hope that when the Iranian delegation returns to Vienna later this month, they do so ready to negotiate, they do so ready to negotiate quickly and in good faith as well.”
Wednesday’s announcement marked the first indication that the government of Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi -- who took office in August and has taken a harder line toward the talks than his predecessor -- is willing to test the waters with the U.S. over removing sanctions and bringing Iran’s oil back to market. But before the penalties can be eased, diplomats will have to overcome major sticking points.
Former President Donald Trump ditched the multinational agreement in 2018. In the years since, the U.S. has imposed a host of sanctions that have hobbled Iran’s economy and slashed its oil sales, while Iran has moved forcefully to advance its uranium-enrichment capability while denying inspectors access to the full scope of its program.
Although U.S. officials have said substantial progress was made in the first six rounds of talks on reviving the accord after President Joe Biden took office, there’s a big logjam: Iran wants the Biden administration to offer some form of guarantee that a future U.S. president won’t back out as Trump did. U.S. officials say they can’t bind future administrations.
The two sides’ inability to solve that puzzle -- as well as lingering questions over which sanctions to lift and how thoroughly Iran will roll back the advancements in its nuclear program -- has spawned growing doubt that a deal can be reached at all.
“I’m not particularly optimistic,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “There needs to be far greater creativity and political will on both sides to make this happen.”
The announcement of renewed talks comes after Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said it took control of an oil tanker that it alleged the U.S. was trying to seize in an attempt to confiscate a shipment of Iranian crude in the Gulf of Oman on Oct. 25, according to Iranian state TV. Citing unnamed U.S. officials, the Associated Press said Iran captured a Vietnamese vessel.
Rejecting as a “ridiculous claim” the Iranian assertion that the U.S. was trying to take control of the tanker, Defense Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon that “the only seizing that was done was by Iran.”
Oil tankers navigating the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman have been a frequent target of tit-for-tat attacks since Trump exited the multilateral nuclear accord.
After Trump withdrew from the deal and slapped on sanctions, Iran’s oil exports fell precipitously from 2.5 million barrels a day. But in recent months, the country’s sales have crept back up to about 1 million barrels a day, according to some estimates, with China accounting for the majority of the sales.
Iran has said it can restore oil output to pre-sanctions level within a few months, and it’s likely to find a market supplying economies recovering from the pandemic and parrying fuel shortages in Europe.
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