Iran has made equally clear it shares the goal of going back to the terms of the original agreement, before President Donald Trump pulled out of it. Trump reinstituted the sanctions and added what Biden officials estimate were at least 1,500 new ones. In response, Iran reactivated key elements of the program the United States and others say could produce nuclear weapons. Iran denies any such ambition.
But nearly two months into Biden’s presidency, with Iran’s own contentious presidential election approaching in June, the two sides have been unable even to talk to each other about what both say they want.
There was a near miss more than three weeks ago, when the administration said it would attend a meeting called by the European Union with Iran and the other original signatories still party to the agreement — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. Iran said no, indicating it wanted to know more about what was on the table.
Since then, the United States and Iran have issued sometimes contradictory, often intransigent statements that reflect mutual suspicion and agendas that are far broader than the simple reactivation of an agreement that many opponents of their efforts believe was flawed to begin with.
This report is drawn from public pronouncements from Washington and Tehran, and interviews with a half-dozen senior U.S. and European officials, and with experts familiar with the issue. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity about what one called the sensitive, and halting, diplomatic “dance.”
Iran wants all Trump sanctions lifted, and an immediate influx of cash from release of blocked international loans and frozen funds, along with foreign investment and removal of bans on oil sales. It seeks assurances that the next U.S. administration won’t jettison the deal again.
Even when the nuclear agreement was in force, Iran complained that U.S. threats limited foreign investment. Sanctions during the first two years of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign led to the contraction of Iran’s economy by almost 12 percent, and oil exports — a key source of foreign currency — dropped by 80 percent, according to an analysis of the campaign published Thursday in Foreign Affairs by Hadi Kahalzadeh, a former Iranian government economist who is a PhD fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University.
Trump restrictions on Iran’s banking system impeded its ability to import medicine and medical supplies as the government confronted one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world.
For its part, the administration wants a reactivated deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, to serve as a “platform” to renegotiate its sunset provisions — the future dates when certain provisions are set to expire. It wants to move quickly to discussions about its other problems with Iran, including Tehran’s ballistic missile program and its use of proxy forces in Iraq, Syria and beyond, and human rights abuses.
“We are talking about both sides returning into compliance . . . and only then engaging in follow-on negotiations on strengthening and lengthening the deal and addressing other concerns, knowing that Iran will bring its concerns to the table, too,” the senior official said.
The administration has not made clear whether an Iranian commitment to follow-on talks is a prerequisite to reentering the deal.
But even an agreement to take simultaneous, sequential steps to comply with its original terms requires a meeting, the official said.
“We can’t guess what steps they will take and when, and what steps we will take and when, without talking directly or — if they refuse — indirectly.”
Among the issues to discuss are which Trump sanctions — some of them unrelated to nuclear issues and thus not included in the original agreement — are eligible to be lifted.
Iran has said it wants all sanctions gone, and that it has no interest in talking about…