The U.S. special envoy for the Iran nuclear talks is headed to the Gulf state of Qatar on Monday for a resumption of indirect discussions with Tehran about ways to revive the agreement.
The likelihood of a breakthrough is low, but these are the first such talks in months. They are coming together following efforts by European officials to get both sides, but in particular Iran, back on board.
The U.S. envoy, Rob Malley, was slated to land in the Qatari capital of Doha later Monday, a senior State Department official told POLITICO.
Up to now, most of the discussions on reviving the deal had been held in Vienna, Austria; they’ve stalled since March. Iran, meanwhile, has advanced its nuclear program significantly, including its enrichment of uranium, and it has been removing or turning off cameras that international inspectors rely upon to monitor its program.
The latest talks, expected to be mediated by European officials because Iran refuses to engage directly with the United States, are likely to start Tuesday, a U.S. official familiar with the issue said.
“Very low expectations,” the U.S. official added.
Two senior Western officials echoed the pessimism.
One noted that even if European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who traveled to Tehran recently, “managed to reinvigorate the process, the substance has not moved much since the Vienna talks paused.”
A State Department spokesperson added, nonetheless, “We are grateful to our EU partners, who continue to convey messages and are working to advance these negotiations.”
The 2015 deal put severe restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for significant sanctions relief on Iran from the United States and other countries.
In 2018, then-President Donald Trump abandoned the agreement and restored the sanctions, saying the deal was not broad or long-lasting enough.
President Joe Biden took office in 2021 promising to try to revive the deal should Iran meet certain conditions. The indirect discussions have lasted well over a year, and both sides came close to agreeing to a path to return to the deal.
But the discussions then hit a major roadblock: Biden is refusing to remove the U.S. designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group unless Iran agrees to certain security-related conditions above and beyond the terms of the nuclear deal.
The IRGC terrorism designation was not part of the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, but Trump imposed it along with a slew of other sanctions that were not part of the original agreement.
Critics of the deal predicted — apparently correctly — that heaping on these additional sanctions would make it harder to restore the original agreement.
Biden himself is planning to visit Israel and Saudi Arabia next month, and the Iran deal is sure to be a topic at both places.
Israel is a major opponent of the agreement. The Saudis, too, have been unhappy with the deal. They are hosting a gathering of regional leaders that Biden will attend.