The trading of response documents marked the latest step in an apparent endgame after nearly a year and a half of negotiations over a return to the 2015 agreement — lifting sanctions on Iran in exchange for its submission to strict curbs on its nuclear program and international monitoring — with no guarantee that a new deal will be reached.
“We are closer now than we were just a couple of weeks ago,” National Security Council communications coordinator John Kirby told reporters. “Gaps remain. We’re not there yet.”
The US move came as Israel, whose national security advisor has been consulting in Washington this week, renewed its opposition to the deal. Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, speaking to reporters Wednesday in Jerusalem, said his government was “not against any agreement. We are against this agreement, because it is a bad one. Because it cannot be accepted as it is written right now.”
US officials have said that the terms of the new text are largely an update of the original agreement. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018, reimposing lifted sanctions and adding many more. In response, Iran resumed its pre-deal nuclear program and accelerated it, increasing the quantity and quality of its uranium enrichment far beyond the prescribed limits that it had previously adhered to and blocking some inspection measures.
Experts urge return to Iran nuclear deal as prospects dim
Israel, and opponents of a new deal in Congress, have said that the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions will provide Iran with hundreds of billions of dollars to finance terrorist activities, and the early expiration of some of its provisions will quickly allow Iran to revive plans to manufacture a nuclear weapon. Administration officials dispute the dollar calculations and say that the reinstatement of limits on the Iranian nuclear program, even with some expiration dates, will provide several years’ relief from an imminent nuclear threat and room for further negotiations.
Iran has said that its program is only for peaceful purposes and that it has no plans to build a weapon.
State Department spokesman Ned Price announced the dispatch of the US reply to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, but provided no details on its contents. Borrell, in charge of orchestrating the negotiations, compiled the final text last month, saying that all possible compromises had already been reached. Iran transmitted a response early last week that Borrell characterized as “reasonable,” but with some proposed “adjustments.”
Kirby also declined to provide details of the US reply. “We’re not going to want to negotiate this thing in public,” he said. “I don’t have a response to speak to today, and I don’t know that we ever will.”
Kirby acknowledged that Iran had previously “acceded to some concessions that has allowed us to get to where we are in the process,” including dropping its demand that the United States remove a terrorist designation against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a part of the Iranian military.
Most of Iran’s proposed adjustments involve which of thousands of US sanctions the administration is prepared to lift and when, according to people familiar with the issue, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomacy. That leaves the center of the dispute where it has been from the beginning — between the United States and Iran — with other parties to the original deal, including Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, largely as bystanders.
As in the initial agreement, the United States has said it would lift only those sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program. “It’s important for people to remember that what we’re talking about here is a return to the JCPOA,” shorthand for the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Kirby said. Iran must “stop spinning centrifuges” used to enrich uranium, “get rid of its enriched uranium” and agree to inspections, he said.
“Yes, there’s sanctions relief,” but “this deal is about their potential weapons capability. That’s where it was in 2015, that’s where it is today,” he said. As written, it does not eliminate or reduce “ample sanctions in place today that will stay in place … or preclude us from imposing others.”
Russia and China have indicated that they would support the final text as written. Following a telephone call between President Biden and his British, French and German counterparts last weekend, the administration has said that the Europeans agree with the US response. Throughout the talks, Iran has refused direct negotiations with the United States, and the Europeans have acted as go-betweens.
Iran has also continued to demand that the International Atomic Energy Agency drop its investigation of radioactive traces found several years ago at several undeclared sites within the country. While a separate issue from the JCPOA, Iran has indicated that it will not implement a new nuclear deal unless the investigation is dropped. Iran’s refusal to cooperate with the IAEA investigation led to a censure resolution this year from the agency’s board of governors.
“No deal will be implemented before the IAEA Board of Directors PERMANENTLY closes the false accusations file. Iran’s nuclear program will not be dismantled,” Seyed Mohammad Marandi, part of Iran’s negotiating team, said on Twitter on Tuesday.
Earlier in the week, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said that the investigation would continue. “So far, Iran has not given us the technically credible explanations that we need to explain the origin of many traces of uranium,” he told CNN. “Let us have an explanation. If there was nuclear material there, where is it now?”
Biden campaigned on a pledge to revive the original agreement. Start-and-stop negotiations began in April 2021, only to be halted after a few months for Iranian elections, which brought hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi to office. Amid lengthy haggling over which US sanctions would be lifted, talks that resumed towards the end of the year included an Iranian demand that Biden guarantee that no subsequent US administration would withdraw from a revived deal — something that it was impossible for him to deliver.
Iran is still asking for some sort of guarantee, according to people familiar with the talks.
Shira Rubin in Jerusalem contributed to this report.