JERUSALEM, Israel – The United States and Iran held indirect talks in Vienna aimed at bringing both countries back into compliance with the nuclear deal world powers signed with Tehran in 2015.
US and Iranian officials said the initial negotiations were “constructive,” but there were no immediate victories for either Iran or the US.
The goal right now is for the US and Iran to agree on a roadmap toward lifting US sanctions imposed by former President Trump in exchange for Iran’s recommitment to the accord.
To help mediate this process, all parties agreed to the creation of two working groups aimed at identifying the “concrete measures to be taken by Washington and Tehran to restore full implementation” of the nuclear agreement, Russian Ambassador to Austria Mikhail Ulyanov said on Twitter.
Russia is one of the original countries that signed the nuclear deal, along with Britain, China, Germany, and France.
One group will determine how the US can lift crippling sanctions on Iran. The other group will focus on getting Iran into compliance with the accord’s limits on nuclear enrichment.
Ulyanov said both expert groups have already begun working but cautioned that the deal’s restoration “will not happen immediately. It will take some time. How long? Nobody knows. The most important thing after today’s meeting of the Joint Commission is that practical work toward achieving this goal has started.”
The initial talks did not resolve the core disagreement between the US and Iran – who is responsible for violating the accord and who should take the first move towards compliance?
The agreement was designed to ensure Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon. It provided sanctions relief to the Islamic Republic so long as Iran agrees to the limits on nuclear development outlined by the accord. Trump unilaterally abandoned the agreement in 2018, arguing it was too weak. Seeking to pressure Iran into new negotiations, he reimposed the sanctions lifted by the deal and then added some 1,500 new sanctions. This did not bring Iran back to the negotiating table.
Faced with crippling sanctions, Iran complained it was no longer reaping the economic benefits of the deal it signed with world powers and began openly violating the accord by ramping up its enrichment of uranium and increasing its stockpiles of uranium.
The negotiations are scheduled to continue on Friday and there will likely be no direct talks between Iranian and US officials.
Despite calls for caution and patience, both sides took an optimistic tone.
Iran’s lead negotiator Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told Iranian media the talks were on “the right track” but “it’s too soon to say it has been successful.”
He reiterated Iran’s demand that the US lift all sanctions all at once instead of taking a gradual approach.
State Department spokesman Ned Price also said there was progress.
"We know there will be difficult discussions ahead but again, this is a healthy step forward," Price said, adding that diplomacy is the best way to resolve this issue.
While the US works to return to the Iranian nuclear deal, it is closely watching Iran’s “breakout time” – the amount of time it will take for Iran to assemble enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. The US estimates Iran is only months away from that reality.
Iran maintains that its nuclear program is for civilian use and it does not intend to manufacture nuclear weapons.