EU to act as go-between as Iran and US agree to resume indirect nuclear talks

Qatar mooted as venue for talks following breakthrough by EU foreign policy chief

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has averted imminent collapse of the 2015 agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions by convincing Iran and the United States to resume talks in the coming days at a venue in the Gulf.

Mr Borrell declared the breakthrough after a weekend meeting in Tehran with Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, without revealing the format for negotiations or location of the talks – although Qatar has been mooted. Mr Amir-Abdollahian vowed to “break the stalemate in the [paused] Vienna talks and end the tension that has existed in recent days”.

Mr Borrell and his deputy Enrique Mora undertook the mission to Tehran after meeting with US special envoy Robert Malley, who “reiterated [a] firm US commitment to come back to the deal,” Mr Mora tweeted.

The tripartite meeting will involve the EU mediating between Iran and the US. If progress is made, negotiations will resume in Vienna where representatives of the agreement’s remaining signatories – France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia – will try to finalise the draft accord completed in March.

The US has been an outlier since the Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018, imposed 1,500 sanctions on Iran and branded Iran’s Republican Guard a terrorist organisation. Iran retaliated by breaching limits set by the deal and reducing United Nations monitoring of nuclear facilities.

In response to US president Joe Biden’s refusal to revoke the terrorist designation, Tehran has, reportedly, proposed a compromise which would end sanctions on Revolutionary Guard-affiliated firms. Iran has also called for guarantees that sanctions will be removed and the next US president will not abandon the agreement.

Mr Borrell has taken urgent action following the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors meeting where the US and its western allies censured Iran for failing to explain the discovery of uranium traces at undeclared sites. Iran retaliated by shutting off 27 IAEA cameras at nuclear sites and installing banned enrichment centrifuges. IAEA director Rafael Grossi warned that this could deal a “fatal blow” to the nuclear deal.

Mr Borrell’s intervention demonstrates a firm European commitment to reviving the deal and puts pressure on Iran to return to compliance and on Mr Biden honour his campaign pledge to re-enter the agreement. By delaying, he has come under heavy domestic pressure from anti-Iran hawks and pro-Israel lobbies to let the nuclear deal fail and under compelling counter-pressure to rejoin from the EU, regional powers and US experts. This could end sanctions on Iranian oil exports and free up stored Iranian crude, which could promptly reduce shortages and high prices caused by cuts in Russian oil exports to Europe due to the Ukraine war and sanctions.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times