A deal is within sight — depending on who you ask.
Negotiators returned to the Austrian capital on Tuesday for the fifth — and likely final — round of discussions over bringing the U.S. and Iran back into compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal, which curbed Tehran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief.
Those involved say a deal is attainable, while cautioning that critical questions remain only partially answered. International inspectors were able to temporarily extend a nuclear monitoring agreement with Iran — avoiding the talks collapsing prematurely — and several countries are sending tentatively optimistic signals.
The discussions have brought together numerous world powers — not just the U.S. and Iran, but Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia. For weeks, officials and diplomats have shuttled back and forth between two luxurious Vienna hotels, tussling over arcane details about Iran’s uranium enrichment and centrifuges, as well as intricate and varied American sanctions.
And now, the moment has come to see whether all the talking can actually resurrect the deal, which has been on life support since former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018. The decision incited a retaliatory cycle, with Iran gradually violating the deal as Trump piled up penalties on Tehran — all over Europe’s objections.
The outcome of the talks will not only have far-reaching implications for stability in the Middle East, it will also set the course for the U.S.-Iranian relationship for years to come. And notably, it will also help demonstrate whether Europe can play a strong role in the region — especially after the EU was left mostly on the sideline during the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas.
“I think an agreement is feasible in this round if there is enough political will,” one diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told POLITICO in Vienna. “There is of course no guarantee that major sticking points will be solved, but I think it is possible that we will come to a positive conclusion of the talks prior to the Iranian elections on 18 June.”
The Viennese diplomatic waltz
Negotiators arrived one-by-one on Tuesday in diplomatic limousines, making their way into the lobby of the heavily guarded Grand Hotel, just blocks from the iconic Vienna State Opera.
When talks are in session, Russia’s chief negotiator, Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov, can usually be seen enjoying a final cigarette next to the hotel entrance before ducking inside. Prying journalists have come to observe the ritual as a “smoke signal” indicating the highly confidential talks are about to begin.
Meanwhile, just across the Ringstrasse, the U.S. delegation is posted up at the Hotel Imperial. Since the U.S. left the deal in 2018, Iran has refused to engage in direct talks with the Americans. So instead, European intermediaries cross the street from the Grand Hotel to deliver updates to the Americans, led by special envoy for Iran Robert Malley, carrying back messages when needed.
Watching the diplomatic dance is a group of reporters, gathered outside under a canvas tarp. It’s an often fruitless waiting game. “I bet three Jägermeister that no one will make a statement,” one reporter quipped Tuesday. Indeed, negotiators emerged after an hour of talks without speaking to the press.
Nearing a conclusion — for now
Despite the quiet start, there is chatter that the current round of talks could yield a breakthrough.
Negotiators are working on a plan that specifies the steps Iran and the U.S. must each take to return to the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Essentially, the plan details how Iran would roll back recent nuclear program advances in exchange for widespread U.S. sanctions relief. The plan will also lay out the sequencing of those steps.
But to get there, negotiators must unblock the sticking points that emerged during previous rounds of talks. For instance, there is still a lot of disagreement around what to do with Iran’s advanced centrifuges, the machines used to enrich uranium. Will they be destroyed or just mothballed?
It is also unclear which specific sanctions the U.S. will roll back. Iran is demanding the U.S. repeal all of its sanctions — not just those reimposed after leaving the deal, but also the additional penalties Trump implemented later. The U.S. has rejected this “maximalist” position.
“We will have to see whether Iran and the U.S. have received additional instructions in the past few days that will make it easier for us to move forward,” the diplomat said.
Still, Ulyanov was nevertheless hopeful on Tuesday. “The Joint Commission opened today the fifth and probably final round of the Vienna talks on restoration of the JCPOA,” he tweeted.
Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister and chief negotiator, echoed the Russian remarks, saying he hoped “to be able to reach a final solution in the talks to be held in the upcoming days,” while adding that “important issues” still needed “to be fixed.”
The U.S. has been more subdued.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News on Sunday that Iran was still not making enough progress in the talks.
“Iran, I think, knows what it needs to do to come back into compliance on the nuclear side,” he said on “This Week.” “And what we haven’t yet seen is whether Iran is ready and willing to make a decision to do what it has to do.”
Diplomats from Britain, France and Germany struck a similarly cautious tone last week after the conclusion of the previous round of talks. “Success is not guaranteed as there are still some very difficult issues ahead of us,” they told reporters. But they also added that the “contours of a deal” were slowly emerging.
But Henry Rome, a senior Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group in Washington, said Iran’s decision to approve mostly hard-line candidates for the presidential election shows Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may be more willing to authorize a deal, secure in the knowledge that a close ally will emerge on June 18.
The development, Rome wrote in an analysis on Tuesday, “could give Khamenei more reason to move the JCPOA timeline forward.”
He argued the move “increases the odds that the nuclear accord could be revived before the presidential election, although a post-election deal early in the third quarter is the most probable scenario.”
Crucial inspections agreement extended
The fifth round of talks also began a day after Iran agreed to a one-month extension of a temporary inspections agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that will allow U.N. inspectors continuous access to nuclear sites in Iran until June 24.
Without this extension, Iran would have been in a position to erase all data that IAEA cameras had recorded inside Iran’s nuclear plants, leaving the U.N. nuclear watchdog essentially “flying blind,” as IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi put it. With the extension, the data will not be deleted but Iran still insists that it will retain the footage until sanctions are lifted and the Iran nuclear deal is restored.
“This is not ideal,” Grossi said. “This is like an emergency device that we came up with in order for us to continue having these monitoring activities.”
The last-minute extension averted a crisis in the nuclear talks, preventing a scenario where the international community would have no way to verify Iran’s nuclear activities.
Additional reporting by Rym Momtaz.