U.S. Says Swift Return to Nuclear Deal Hinges on Iran’s Moves

The U.S. and Iran could revive their nuclear agreement with world powers as early as this month if the government in Tehran proves its willingness to rein in its atomic work in exchange for sanctions relief, according to a U.S. official.

Diplomats will enter a fourth round of indirect nuclear talks in Vienna on Friday with sides closing in on an agreement that could restore the accord struck in 2015 and abandoned by the Trump administration three years later.

A decision to rejoin the deal would arguably be President Joe Biden’s riskiest foreign policy move a little more than 100 days into office. The agreement with Iran has riven the U.S. from some Middle East allies and deeply divided domestic politics.

Urgency to rejoin the deal has mounted with Iran’s nuclear work “galloping forward” in the absence of restrictions imposed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a senior State Department official told reporters on Thursday, asking not to be identified in return for discussing the status of talks. While there isn’t any certainty that a deal can be reached before next month’s presidential election in Iran, the possibility has increased over the last several weeks, he said.

Monitoring Deal

The U.S. comments follow similar statements by European officials last week. They’re seeking restoration of the accord by the middle of May, before a key monitoring deal expires with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.

The talks aim to choreograph a U.S. return to the landmark 2015 accord abandoned by then-President Donald Trump and the rollback of Iran’s nuclear program to limits set by that pact. That’s a complex task. Trump imposed penalties on the Iranian economy, including its critical oil sales, but also on government and military officials in what was seen as an attempt to make it harder for a future administration to dismantle the sanctions regime.

Diplomats are focused on ensuring equivalence on both the U.S. and Iranian sides, according to the U.S. official, who nixed the possibility that the White House would re-enter an accord if Iran did anything less than the original deal required.

Negotiations have become more urgent as the clock ticks toward May 22, a deadline agreed by Tehran and the IAEA that’s central to efforts to ensure Iran isn’t hiding uranium enrichment work. The sides made a deal in February that permits IAEA cameras installed at key facilities to record activities. Inspectors will only gain access to those recordings if an accord is reached in the Vienna talks. Otherwise, Iran says it will erase them.

Should an agreement be reached, the U.S. official expects follow-on talks about ballistic missile proliferation and regional security, part of an effort by the Biden administration to go beyond the 2015 deal. The official declined to say if the release of U.S. citizens is a precondition to the U.S. returning to the JCPOA, describing it instead as a priority regardless of what happens with the agreement

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