Representatives of the United States will be on hand but will not meet directly with the Iranians when the remaining Iran nuclear deal signatories meet next week, officials said Friday.
“One of the parties is telling … that they, for the time being, prefer not to meet directly with the other party,” a senior EU official involved in the talks said, referring discreetly to the Iranians, who have insisted that the U.S. should end all unilateral sanctions as a precondition to renewed negotiations.
Tuesday’s meeting in Vienna is part of a renewed push to bring the U.S. back into the accord following the country’s withdrawal under then-President Donald Trump.
Officials announced the in-person gathering in the Austrian capital after a videoconference on Friday led by the EU, which is the administrator of the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
“In line with the joint ministerial statement of 21 December participants recognised the prospect of a full return of the U.S. to the JCPOA, and underlined their readiness to positively address this in a joint effort,” the European External Action Service (EEAS) said in a statement. “Participants also emphasised their commitment to preserve the JCPOA and discussed modalities to ensure the return to its full and effective implementation.”
The statement continued: “Participants agreed to resume this session of the Joint Commission in Vienna next week, in order to clearly identify sanctions lifting and nuclear implementation measures, including through convening meetings of the relevant expert groups. In this context, the coordinator will also intensify separate contacts in Vienna with all JCPOA participants and the United States.”
Iranian media reported that Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi had confirmed Tehran’s participation in Tuesday’s meeting in Vienna.
Russia’s ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, tweeted that Friday’s session went well and the parties were prepared to talk further.
While U.S. officials will be present in Vienna, Iran is refusing so far to engage directly with Washington. The Iranians have called for the U.S. to lift economic sanctions, which were reimposed by Trump after he unilaterally quit the deal in May 2018.
Tehran has said that it would resume its own compliance with the JCPOA once the lifting of sanctions has been verified. The U.S. in turn has demanded that Iran return to full compliance with its obligations under the deal.
Friday’s meeting was chaired by the EEAS Deputy Secretary-general Enrique Mora. China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.K. signed the original agreement with Iran and the U.S.; officially, the talks are chaired by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.
In Vienna next week, two expert groups will be initiated, one on nuclear commitments and a second focused on lifting sanctions, the senior EU official said. The discussions are expected to concentrate solely on the deal’s implementation and will not extend to other issues, such as Iran’s backing of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Critics of the JCPOA, including Trump, long complained that the deal never addressed Iran’s other malign activities or its ballistic missile program.
For EU officials, a key objective is to capitalize on the expressed willingness of President Joe Biden’s administration to rejoin the accord.
“What we are basically negotiating is a list of nuclear commitments and in parallel, another list of commitments on sanction liftings,” the senior official said, adding that if the requirements of both lists are met, “we would have full implementation of the agreement by both Iran and the United States.”
The official said that the two sets of commitments could be implemented on different timetables.
The goal, the official said, is “to define in which conditions, what has to be done for both Iran and the United States going back to full compliance.”
All sides agree that the U.S. and Iran must return to full compliance with their obligations, but there is fierce disagreement over the sequence of steps, and who will have to act first. The senior official said the primary goal is to agree on the overall objectives of what is required by each side, rather than any details.
“We will not be negotiating first steps in the sense [of] sanctions lifting, two or three sanctions, and then a couple of nuclear commitments,” the official said, adding that the process eventually will involve some confidence-boosting measures. But for now, the official said: “We are not negotiating partial things. We are negotiating the whole list.”
Negotiators are under pressure from the political calendar to make some quick progress because Iran will hold a presidential election in June that could shift the dynamics of talks, or even lead to a change in negotiators.
“I do think that we can do it in less than two months,” the senior official, adding that there appeared to be goodwill from all parties, including Russia and China.
This article has been updated.