Iran has delivered a document to the EU that Tehran said is aimed at “finalising negotiations” on a proposed revival of a deal restraining Iranian nuclear activities.
The text, delivered shortly before 3am on Friday Tehran time, is the latest bid 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 is, in turn, a reply to the US text.
Officials on both sides had been cautiously optimistic this exchange will eventually 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.
The Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Nasser Kanaani, said Iran’s latest text presented “a constructive approach with the aim of finalising the negotiations”.
However a senior US administration official quoted by Politico said: “We are studying Iran’s response but the bottom line is that it is not at all encouraging.”
“Based on their answer we appear to be moving backwards,” the unnamed official was quoted as saying.
Israeli security officials and some in the US Congress have expressed alarm at what they saw as momentum towards a deal, driven by overwhelming economic imperatives in both Washington and Tehran to get Iranian oil products back on the world market.
Inflation in Iran is over 40%; a deal could also usher in a new Middle East political dynamic between the Arab Gulf states and Iran. Washington wants to bring down the oil price to moderate inflation and to increase pressure on Russia which is financing its war in Ukraine through high oil prices.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, 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 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.
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.”
Apart from these stumbling blocks, the kernel of the four-stage deal has now been leaked in the Iranian press.
The deal would start with a signing ceremony in Vienna, on the same day that Biden will issue three executive orders, removing sanctions from 170 Iranian leaders, banks and companies.
There will be a 60-day period in which Iran can test its ability to trade in oil and access its frozen assets overseas. By then the US Senate must endorse the deal, but the precise way the US does this will be hotly contested.
After another 60 days, if both sides are satisfied, the commitments previously given in the original nuclear deal covering stockpiles and enrichment must be activated, and after a further 45 days the process will be completed.
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 of no deal is worse, and these expiry dates can be extended in negotiations