President Biden and the Iranian heads of state and government share a common goal: They both want to re-enter the nuclear deal, which President Donald J. Trump abolished three years ago, and thus restore the agreement that Iran would produce its nuclear fuel in return would severely restrict it for lifting any sanctions that have stifled its economy.
But after five weeks of shadow boxing in Viennese hotel rooms – where both sides pass on notes about European brokers – it has become clear that the strictly defined old deal will no longer work for either of them, at least in the long term.
Iranians are demanding that they be allowed to keep the advanced nuclear fuel-making equipment they installed after Mr Trump abandoned the pact and that integration into the world financial system go beyond what they achieved under the 2015 agreement .
For its part, the Biden government says restoring the old deal is just a stepping stone. An agreement must be reached immediately to limit missiles and support terrorism – and make it impossible for Iran to produce enough fuel for a bomb for decades. The Iranians don’t say a way.
Now that the negotiators are again involved in Vienna, where a new round of talks began on Friday, the Biden government is at a crucial decision point. Restoring the 2015 agreement, with all its flaws, seems doable, as interviews with European, Iranian and American officials suggest. But to get what Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken has called a “longer and stronger” deal – one that will keep Iran from accumulating nuclear material for generations, stopping its missile tests and ending support for terrorist groups – looks like this far away like never before.
This is possibly a major political vulnerability for Mr Biden, who knows that he cannot simply repeat what the Obama administration negotiated six years ago after marathon meetings in Vienna and elsewhere, while making vague promises that something much bigger and better could follow.
Iran and the United States “are negotiating really different deals,” said Vali R. Nasr, a former American civil servant who is now at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. “That’s why the conversations are so slow.”
The Americans see the restoration of the old deal as a first step towards something much bigger. And they are encouraged by Iran’s desire to relax a number of financial constraints beyond this deal – mainly conducting transactions with Western banks – because that would create what a senior civil servant would consider “a ripe thing for one.” Negotiating a follow-on “designated consent.”
The Iranians refuse to even discuss a major deal. And American officials say it is not yet clear that Iran really wants to restore the old deal, ridiculed by powerful hardliners at home.
With the Iranian presidential elections six weeks away, the relatively moderate Lame Duck team led by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif believe that an agreement is just around the corner. “Almost all major sanctions have been lifted,” Rouhani told the Iranians on Saturday, apparently referring to the American outlines of what is possible if Tehran restores the strict limits on nuclear production. “Negotiations are ongoing for some details.”
Not so fast, replied Mr Blinken. He and European diplomats underline that Iran has not yet described in as much detail what nuclear borders will be restored.
But even if so, it is a question American officials find difficult to answer how Mr Biden is almost certain to convince a new Iranian administration to commit to further talks to extend and strengthen the deal. However, Mr Biden’s advisors say their strategy is based on the idea that restoring the old deal will lead to greater international unity, particularly with Europeans who vigorously protested Mr Trump’s decision to end a working deal. And even the old deal, said a senior official, “seriously obscured Iran’s nuclear program.”
Outside the talks hover the Israelis who are continuing a campaign of sabotage and assassination to cripple the Iranian program – and perhaps the negotiations themselves. So it was noteworthy that the director of the Mossad who led these operations recently attended a meeting was taken to the White House with the President. After an explosion at the Natanz nuclear power plant last month, Mr Biden told aid workers that the timing – just as the United States was making progress on restoring the deal – was suspect.
The split with Israel remains. At the Washington meeting last week – which included Mr Blinken; the C.I.A. Director William J. Burns; and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan – Israeli officials argued that the United States is naive to revert to the old deal, which it believes preserves a nascent nuclear outbreak capability.
Mr. Biden’s top advisors argued that three years of “maximum pressure” put on Iran by Mr. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to break its administration or curtail its support for terrorism. In fact, it had led to a nuclear outbreak.
In Vienna, chief negotiator Robert Malley, whose relationship with Mr Blinken dates back to the high school they attended together in Paris, has reportedly made a significant offer to lift sanctions that are “inconsistent” with the original agreement.
On Wednesday, Mr Blinken said the United States “has shown our sincerity of purpose” by getting back on the deal.
“What we don’t know yet is whether Iran is ready to make the same decision and move forward,” he said said the BBC.
Iran wants more sanctions lifted than US judges are in line with the deal and is insisting that more of its nuclear infrastructure – particularly advanced centrifuges – be preserved than this deal allows. Instead, Iran argues that the International Atomic Energy Agency should simply inspect the new centrifuges, a position that is unacceptable to Washington.
As talks continue, Iran is keeping the pressure on by building up its stocks of highly enriched uranium and equipment, all of which are in violation of the deal.
Both Iran and the United States operate under delicate political constraints. Even if the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supported the Vienna talks, Mr Rouhani and Mr Zarif are mocked by powerful conservatives who do not trust Washington and want to take the presidency.
For his part, Mr Biden has to deal with a Congress that is extremely skeptical of a deal and broadly sympathizes with Israel’s concerns.
But with the end of the Iranian elections, time is pressing, and the Biden government has lost significant chunks of it as its bargaining position has evolved, officials say. The Americans first called for Iran to return to compliance and then decided to maintain some of the Trump administration’s sanctions in order to force a broader negotiation.
In two discussions in February, the Europeans urged American officials to seriously start negotiations and lift some sanctions as a gesture of good faith against Iran. These suggestions were ignored. But when Ayatollah Khamenei said the country could enrich uranium to 60 percent purity – as opposed to the 3.67 percent limit in the nuclear deal – Washington took the matter seriously, officials said, fearing that this would be the so-called would further reduce the breakout time for Iran to get enough material to make a bomb.
It wasn’t until the end of March that the two sides agreed to negotiate the entire agreement at once, and the Vienna talks began in early April. Then it took Americans more time to admit that returning to the 2015 accord, as it was written, was the best, and perhaps only, way to build enough trust with Iran that its leaders might consider even wider follow-up talks.
Three working groups have been set up: one to discuss what sanctions Washington needs to lift, one to discuss how Iran is returning to the enrichment limits, and one to discuss how to manage the mutual return. Iran has not yet seriously considered its plans and is still insisting that Washington go first, but one more sticking point remains: what sanctions will be lifted?
Mr Trump restored or imposed more than 1,500 sanctions to prevent the pact from being renewed. The penalties have been broken down into three baskets – green, yellow, and red, depending on how clearly they are inconsistent with the deal. Green is canceled; yellow must be negotiated; and will remain red, including, for example, sanctions against individuals for human rights violations.
The decision as to which sanctions should be lifted is politically sensitive for both countries. In the yellow category, for example, Iran insists that a Trump-era sanction called terrorism must be lifted from its central bank because it harms trade. But it would be even more complicated for Washington to remove the terrorism designation from the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, officials said.
For the Iranians, it would be a tough sell even for the top leader to agree to a deal that does not undermine the guards’ destiny.
“It is difficult for Biden to justify lifting sanctions on institutions that still threaten US interests in the region, and it is difficult for Rouhani to go home and boast of all sanctions but those of his rivals said Ali Vaez, the Iranian project director at the International Crisis Group.
“It’s a fragile process,” said Vaez, noting Iran’s missile strikes in Iraq. “If a single American is killed, the whole process gets derailed.”
But how Mr Biden gets Iran to negotiate a better or a new deal is the question.
American officials have no real answer to this dilemma as they try to revive the old deal, but they claim that Iran too wants more benefits than the old deal, so it should be ready to go further. Americans say they are ready to discuss how to strengthen the agreement for mutual benefit, but they say it would be a choice for Iran.
Despite Iran’s pressure tactics – increasing the enrichment in small quantities to low bomb levels and banning international inspectors from key sites in late February – Mr Zarif insists these steps are easily reversible.
American intelligence officials say that while Iran has stepped up its nuclear material production – and is probably only months away from producing enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb or two – even now there is no evidence that Iran is doing its job to fashion advances a warhead. “We continue to believe that Iran is not currently engaged in the major nuclear weapon development activities that we believe are necessary to manufacture a nuclear device,” Avril D. Haines, director of the National Intelligence Service, said in a report last month .
The Israelis are more skeptical, arguing that evidence they stole three years ago from a storage archive of the Iranian nuclear program shows that Iranian scientists have already done extensive work on warhead design.
Mr Blinken says the Vienna Talks are intended to return stability and control to the Iranian nuclear program, which the 2015 deal provided for until it was abandoned by Mr Trump.
“So there is nothing naive about that. On the contrary, it is a very clear way of dealing with a problem that was effectively dealt with by the JCPOA,” said Blinken, referring to the 2015 deal. “We have to see if we can do the same can do once. “
The atmosphere in Iran has been hampered by a recent scandal involving Mr Zarif, whose criticism of internal decisions has recently leaked, apparently to damage his reputation and any chance he had for the presidency.
Ayatollah Khamenei rejected the criticism without naming Mr. Zarif, but said the comments were “a huge mistake that an Islamic Republic official cannot make” and “a repetition of what the enemies of Iran say”.
At the same time, by downplaying the role of Mr Zarif, the top chairman reaffirmed his support for the talks while protecting them from criticism from hardliners, said Ellie Geranmayeh of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Steven Erlanger reports from Brussels, and David E. Sanger from Washington. Farnaz Fassihi contributed to coverage from New York.