Hopes of a rapid conclusion to negotiations on a revived nuclear deal with Iran have receded after the US quickly rejected the latest Iranian proposal as “not constructive”.
Washington’s rapid reaction to the Iranian text, which had been delivered shortly before 3am on Friday Tehran time, directly contradicted Tehran’s claims that its proposals presented “a constructive approach” aimed at “finalising the negotiations”.
Only minutes after the Iran proposals were received by the EU and passed on to Washington, the Biden administration gave it a provisional, but abrupt, thumbs down.
“We can confirm that we have received Iran’s response through the EU,” a state department spokesman said. “We are studying it and will respond through the EU, but unfortunately it is not constructive.”
An unnamed US official was quoted in Politico as saying: “Based on their answer we appear to be moving backwards.”
It is not clear what was in the Iranian text that was the latest round in a to-and-fro exchange with Washington aimed at tweaking a draft agreement presented by the EU on 8 August. Iran gave its first response to the draft on 15 August, which was followed by a response from the US. The latest Iranian document was, in turn, a reply to the US text.
Officials on both sides had been cautiously optimistic about the possibility of converge on a final agreement that will revive a 2015 nuclear deal in which Iran accepted strict limits on its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief. That agreement has been severely eroded since Donald Trump withdrew US participation in 2018 and reintroduced sanctions.
Last week, John Kirby, the US national security spokesman, had hailed what he called Iranian concessions and on Wednesday this week said the White House remained “hopeful” there would be a deal.
Early on Friday in Tehran, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Nasser Kanaani, had said Iran’s latest text presented “a constructive approach with the aim of finalising the negotiations”.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, had also struck an optimistic note on Wednesday in an address to French diplomats in Paris, saying he hoped a new deal could be agreed on “in the next few days”.
But Ali Alizadeh, a member of the Iranian parliament security commission had dampened that optimism, by warning that the US position was not aligned with the EU draft text, saying it had dashed his earlier hopes that agreement was days away.
The Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, said Iran still needed stronger guarantees that the lifting of US sanctions would have a practical impact, and could not readily be reimposed by future US administrations.
“On guarantees, we need a stronger text,” the minister said in Moscow at a press conference with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.
Joe Biden has said he can guarantee US compliance with the agreement under his presidency but not by future administrations – in effect giving Iran only a two-year guarantee of sanctions relief.
The US has tried to give Tehran comfort by vowing that any trade or investment deals signed before a future US administration left the agreement would be legally immune from US sanctions for as long as five years.
Iran is also seeking guarantees that by the time the agreement comes fully into force, the west will entirely drop its three-year inquiry into unexplained nuclear particles found at nuclear sites before 2003. The EU has suggested the inquiry might be dropped so long as credible explanations are provided.
Iran fears the probe’s continued existence might be used as a pretext to maintain or reimpose sanctions.
The Russian envoy to the nuclear talks in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, urged the west to relent saying: “No current illegal activities are taking place there.”
One of the most difficult issues has been how to handle Iran’s advanced centrifuges and surplus stock of uranium enriched by the Iranians in breach of the original agreement.
The west wanted the destruction of these centrifuges or their removal from Iran, but Iran only wants to dismantle and store these devices within Iran.
Iran argues that the warehousing of the centrifuges in an IAEA supervised building will act as a sword of Damocles, and serve as a guarantee that the US will abide by the agreement. US Republicans also want guarantees that enriched surplus uranium will not be sent to Russia, without UN oversight.
Israeli officials say the deal opens a pathway to an Iranian nuclear weapon since it will be allowed to begin operating advanced centrifuges by 2026 and then enrich more uranium at higher levels by 2031. But advocates of the deal say the alternative, no deal at all – is worse, and these expiry dates can be extended in negotiations.