The fifth round of talks in Vienna meant to return the US and Iran to the 2015 agreement on Tehran's nuclear programme begins this week with the aim of resolving remaining differences between the sides.
Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani said Tehran would continue the negotiations “until reaching a final agreement” and claimed “Washington has agreed to lift sanctions on Iran”, without specifying which sanctions.
During the four previous rounds of indirect talks between signatories of the deal – Iran, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia – and the US, which pulled out in 2018, diplomats involved say there has been major progress but agreement remains elusive.
A year after the Trump administration's abandonment, Iran began to breach the deal, in which it agreed to limits on its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. Iran enriched and stockpiled uranium beyond banned levels and curbed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring of its nuclear programme.
Although Tehran has repeatedly pledged it will revert promptly to the terms of the deal after US re-entry, and US president Joe Biden has said he will recommit, the US continues to procrastinate. Secretary of state Antony Blinken reiterated the US's determination to return in an interview on Sunday with CNN's Farid Zakaria, but said it was not clear whether Iran was "ready and willing" to return to compliance.
Iranian negotiator Abbas Araghchi retorted on Monday that the US “must first provide verifiable sanctions lifting. Iran will then resume full implementation.” He asked, “Is the US ready?”
The US says it will lift sanctions connected to and inconsistent with the deal but retain those linked to Iran’s regional interventions and ballistic missiles, while Iran demands a total end to sanctions imposed since the US pulled out of the deal.
This round of talks opens in an optimistic atmosphere after Iran extended for a month IAEA access to video images of aspects of its nuclear programme. Camera coverage had already been extended for three months in the expectation the talks would conclude with a positive result before this month’s expiry.
Decision-makers in both Washington and Tehran are plagued by hardliners who reject a return to the nuclear accord. As anti-Iran hawks in Congress and pro-Israel lobbyists have pressured Mr Biden to demand a more comprehensive agreement, hesitation has made it all the more difficult for him to re-enter.
Anti-US hawks in Iran's parliament rejected the original deal and are determined that Tehran will not return to compliance unless 100 per cent of sanctions are removed. However, the country's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate decider, appears committed to the deal.
An end to sanctions on oil exports, trade and banking could rescue Iran’s deteriorating economy and provide relief to the populace, which suffers unemployment, inflation and shortages of medicines and essential goods.