EU-brokered talks on the Iran nuclear deal reopen on Monday in Vienna without expectation of an early breakthrough and a warning by Washington's envoy Robert Malley that the US will not sit "idly by" if Iran drags out negotiations while it ramps up its nuclear programme.
US Central Command chief Gen Kenneth McKenzie put teeth into this warning when he told Time magazine that his command "has a variety of plans that we could execute, if directed".
The 2015 deal with the US and other world powers saw Iran sign up to curbs on its nuclear activities in exchange for an easing of western sanctions.
Mr Malley said the US was prepared to get back into the deal and lift all the sanctions that were inconsistent with it. Iran has demanded an end to all 1,500 sanctions imposed after the Trump administration abandoned the deal in 2018.
Despite progress during the previous six rounds, a pause was imposed ahead of Iran's presidential election in June, which was won by hardline deal-sceptic Ebrahim Raisi. He took time to review the files and appoint new negotiators to take over from the team that worked under pro-deal president Hassan Rouhani. The seventh round could reveal Raisi's intentions.
Iran will, once again, negotiate directly with the remaining parties to the 2015 deal – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China – and indirectly with the US, based in another hotel, with EU mediator Enrique Mora shuttling between the sides.
"Participants will continue the discussions on the prospect of a possible return of the United States to the [deal] and how to ensure the full and effective implementation of the agreement by all sides," said the EU's European External Action Service.
Tehran insists the US must re-enter the agreement and guarantee it will not withdraw again, as well as end sanctions. In exchange, Iran would cease enriching uranium beyond 3.7 per cent purity, export stockpiles above 300kg, retire advanced enrichment centrifuges, and resume full co-operation with International Atomic Energy Agency monitors, who are meant to ensure Iran's compliance.
Tehran has breached the deal since 2019 on the premise that Iran could "cease performing its commitments [if there was] significant non-performance" by other signatories. Following the US abandonment, Europe failed to lift sanctions due to threats of US secondary sanctions on any government, firm or individual trading with and investing in Iran.
Iran’s economy has contracted, the value of its currency has fallen, unemployment has risen and Covid-19 infections have soared due to shortages of tests, vaccines and medications.
Roiled by US and European handling of the deal, Russia and China have agreed to back Iran in this round. There have been rumours of an “interim deal”, without specifics.
US president Joe Biden had been expected to return to the deal soon after taking office but he insisted the agreement should be extended to cover Iran's regional interventions and ballistic missile programme. These demands have been rejected by both Rouhani and Raisi.
Opponents of the deal in Congress and Israel have increased pressure on Mr Biden to expand or scrap it.
US-Iranian dual citizen and analyst Negar Mortazavi told al-Jazeera that the Biden administration "completely missed [the] golden opportunity" to promptly rejoin, thereby jeopardising the agreement.
Ahead of the talks, the Elders group, comprising global figures including former president Mary Robinson, called on all parties to "show courageous leadership and willingness to compromise".