A senior State Department official said that questions remain about whether Iran seriously wants to return to compliance with the nuclear deal after talks in Vienna this week aimed at salvaging the landmark 2015 agreement.
The indirect talks will resume in Vienna next week to continue the process of figuring out the steps that the United States and Iran each need to take to get back into compliance with the agreement, which the Trump administration abandoned in 2018.
This official reiterated that the United States is prepared to lift sanctions that are “inconsistent” with the 2015 deal and with the benefits that Iran expects from the deal if Iran returns to compliance – a position they acknowledged is likely to face strong opposition from some in Congress.
“We know how strong the opposition will be – some people who were opposed to the to the JCPOA back in 2015 and ’16 and who were favor of the withdrawal and who now are against any efforts to come back in,” the official said, using the acronym for the deal that’s formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
But they stressed that this “just the first step of this first phase of a potential return to” the nuclear deal, and argued that leaving that agreement had not made America safer.
At this week’s indirect talks, the official said the delegations from the US and Iran did not interact directly, but exchanged views through officials from the global powers still party to the deal. Their discussions were focused on defining “a common set of steps” that Iran and the United States could take, and “if and when” they get closer to a common understanding on those steps, they will likely discuss sequencing.
“The United States team put forward a very serious, very serious ideas, demonstrated a seriousness of purpose coming back into compliance if Iran comes back into compliance,” they said Friday. “On the whole the discussions were productive, they were business-like, the atmosphere was very constructive.”
“At the same time, a question still remains about whether the seriousness of purpose and the intent of coming back into compliance that the US showed will be reciprocated by Iran,” they continued. “I’d say, you know, we saw some signs of it but not certainly not enough.”
Iranian officials have maintained that the US must lift all Trump-era sanctions and return to the nuclear deal before it comes back into compliance with the agreement.
The senior State Department official said such public views cast doubt on whether Tehran truly intends to return to compliance with the conditions of the deal – conditions it has increasingly breached.
“The question mark has to do with … the repeated statements by Iran that all sanctions imposed since 2017 have to be lifted, and that is not consistent with the deal itself, because under the deal the US retains the right to impose sanctions for non-nuclear reasons, whether it’s terrorism or human rights violations or interference with our elections, etc.”
“We’ve made it clear publicly we made it clear to the Iranians indirectly, that our view is that all sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA and inconsistent with the benefit that Iran expects from the JCPOA, we are prepared to lift those if Iran comes back into compliance with its obligations,” the official said.
However, the official also charged that the Trump administration “went out of its way to make it difficult for a successor administration to rejoin the JCPOA,” noting that they layered sanctions by putting new terrorism sanctions on entities that had already been sanctioned on nuclear grounds. As a result it is a “complicated process” to determine which sanctions to unwind, the official explained.
‘Infinitely easier if we had direct conversations’
The official noted that “it would be infinitely easier if we had direct conversations with Iran,” but added that “if they don’t want to meet with us, too bad. … It’s just going to be much harder to for them to get what they say they want which is a return, mutual return, to compliance.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Friday that there was no need for direct talks until the US rejoins the 2015 agreement.
The senior State Department official noted that Saturday is “nuclear day” in Iran, which is traditionally “the day when Iran has made nuclear announcements.”
“Depending on the announcements it also could be a sign of whether they are approaching these talks in a constructive spirit, and taking, taking on board the fact that the US has shown a real seriousness of purpose, or whether they’re going to take a different track which would raise more questions about their intention,” the official said. “So I think we’ll have to see what happens, what happens tomorrow to get a further clue – it won’t be a definitive answer probably – but a further clue into Iran’s thinking.”
The official also noted that the US delegation in Vienna brought up the issue of Americans detained and missing in Iran.
“And we raised it as forcefully as we always do just to make sure that Iran understands that … is a priority,” they said. “It’s separate from the nuclear talks, but it is something that we won’t forget and that we will keep raising with Iran.”
Iran is currently detaining US citizens Siamak and Baquer Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, and Emad Sharghi and has not accounted for the fate of Robert Levinson.