As talks resume, Iran and the signatories to the 2015 agreement face a web of sanctions to untangle

Delegates to the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna
Representatives from Iran, the UK and the European Union meet at the Grand Hotel in Vienna. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

What is happening in Vienna?

A joint commission responsible for overseeing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is looking for a way for the US to rejoin the agreement – abandoned under Donald Trump – and lift its sanctions on Tehran, and for Iran to end its retaliatory breaching of the limits placed on its nuclear programme.

Throughout this week experts from the deal’s remaining signatories – Iran, France, Germany, the UK, Russia, China and the EU – have been meeting in Vienna’s Grand Hotel and relaying messages to the US delegation over the road in a neighbouring hotel. On Friday the joint commission will reconvene to review whether enough progress has been made to continue the talks on reviving the deal, which lifted economic sanctions on Iran in return for curbs to its nuclear programme.

What progress has been made and why now?

It took 76 days from Joe Biden’s inauguration for talks to start, partly because both sides needed to go through backchannels to agree a format, frame an agenda and square domestic support. On Monday the US and Iran agreed they had two lists to compile. First, they need to agree on a full inventory of the sanctions that the US needs to lift to come back into compliance with UN resolutions on the nuclear deal. Second, they need to compile a full list of the constraints that Iran must readopt to return to compliance. Iran will not talk to the US directly, so this is cumbersome.

Is it easy to identify the steps the US must take?

No. When the US signed the original deal in 2015, it made a critical distinction between lifting pre-existing, nuclear-related sanctions and other sanctions that it would retain related to Iranian acts of terrorism, its ballistic missile programme, human rights abuses or cybercrimes. Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, is now insisting all sanctions imposed since January 2016, the date the 2015 agreement came into force, are lifted. But the US says some of the sanctions imposed by Trump after that date could be said to be non-nuclear related and so need not be lifted. For instance, Iranian-backed hackers were sanctioned in September, as were three judges, three deputy directors of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation involved in its ballistic missile programme. The Biden administration has even added sanctions against human rights abusers. Some individuals and entities have been sanctioned for more than one reason.

In a bid to make it harder to dismantle his sanctions, Trump also blurred the lines between nuclear and non-nuclear sanctions by relabelling many of nuclear-related sanctions as terrorist related. So Trump named as a foreign terrorist organisation not just the Revolutionary Guards, but the central bank, the ministry of oil and the National Iranian Oil Company. Trump argued they were funnelling cash to Hezbollah and other organisations. Reaching an agreed list of the post-2016 sanctions that both sides regard as nuclear related is at heart of the shuttle diplomacy. By one account there are 1,500 sanctions to be categorised.

Are there any guidelines on which sanctions should be lifted?

Not really. The nuclear agreement obligates the US to “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly or adversely affect the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran inconsistent [with the deal]” and to “prevent interference with the realisation of the full benefit by Iran of the sanctions lifting”. Iran is leaning on that wording to argue for most sanctions to be lifted.

What does Iran in turn need to do?

The successive steps Iran has taken away from the agreement can readily be itemised since each one was advertised by Iran at the time the step was taken. Iran has breached the uranium enrichment purity threshold of 3.67 %, the size of its uranium stockpile exceeds the limit of 300kg, it is using advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium faster than the deal allows and it has restricted the terms of UN nuclear inspector visits. These discussions are fearsomely technical but urgent. Iran announced this week it had purified 55kg of uranium at 20% in just three months, indicating a faster rate of production than the 10kg a month rate required by parliament, with the spokesperson of its Atomic Energy Organisation claiming its production rate is “up to 40%” faster.

What happens after the lists of the steps that need to be made are mutually agreed?

Iran seems to be saying it will not reverse its steps until the US sanctions are lifted and this is verified to its satisfaction. So this requires Biden not just to sign an executive order or a piece of paper, but for the changes to have a real world impact on Iran’s ability to do business. The US had been arguing for a staged, step-by-step agreement so that each can check that the other side is carrying out their commitments. Robert Malley, the US Iran envoy, said: “I think what we can essentially rule out are the maximalist demands that the United States do everything first and only in turn would Iran then act; I don’t think anyone is under the impression that that would be a viable proposal.”

Is there a deadline?

Iran has presidential elections in June, but both sides, anxious not to show any bargaining vulnerabilities, say this does not represent a target date. Iranian experts disagree on the extent to which the politics of an Iranian president truly influences decisions on the nuclear file in the Islamic republic. Some say Iran’s nuclear policy is a product of a hidden consensus in which non-elected bodies including the supreme leader make the calls. Malley said: “We will negotiate with whoever is president.” But it seems logical that Washington would prefer to negotiate with a president better disposed to the west than a leader planning to build a resistance economy.

Does the enforceability of this agreement need to be changed?

Iran’s trust in the 2015 deal has corroded since, from the Iranian point of view, Trump’s decision to abrogate the agreement came at no cost to the US. The 2015 deal was a non-binding political agreement with incentives for both sides to comply. But Biden would need the support of two-thirds of Congress to turn this deal into an international treaty. An alternative would be a congressional-executive agreement requiring approval by a simple majority vote by both houses of Congress.

If they implement a deal, what happens next?

Iran says “that’s it”, but the US wants to revise the deal’s outdated sunset clauses, as envisaged in the original deal, constrain Iran’s missile programme and its regional behaviour. Some of this could be addressed in a treaty. Others through diplomacy. Republicans in Congress claim Biden would have no more leverage to get Iran to the negotiating table on these issues since the sanction bludgeon would have been thrown away.

Noises off …

A myriad of forces will try to disrupt the talks. Israel attacked an Iranian ship in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia is nervous. Hardliners in both countries, and the militant diaspora, all have a voice if not quite a veto. Human rights campaigners do not want their detained friends and family cast aside at the negotiating table.