Diplomats in Vienna
© Lars Ternes/Eu Delegation in Vienna/Getty Images
Diplomats from the European Union, China, Russia and Iran held talks on Tuesday in Vienna.
A broad roadmap designed to rescue the Iran nuclear deal undermined by Donald Trump has been agreed in talks in Vienna, with the aim of bringing Iran and the US back into compliance in as little as two months.

Two working groups have been set up to examine the economic sanctions on Iran that the US will need to lift to come back into compliance with UN security council resolutions, and the steps Iran will need to take to bring its nuclear programme in line with the terms set out in the 2015 deal.

Since the US pulled out of the deal in 2018, Iran has taken a series of steps away from it, including on the use of advanced centrifuges, enriched uranium levels and limiting access for UN weapons inspectors to its nuclear sites.

Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian ambassador to Vienna, hailed the outcome as "successful". He said two groups tasked to identify measures for Washington and Tehran to take had started work immediately, but it was impossible to say how long the process would be. A further meeting between diplomats is expected on Friday, suggesting the pace of the talks is designed to be intense, and already has a base of prepared background technical work on which to draw.

Enrique Mora, the political director of the European Union's foreign service, said the meeting had been constructive, adding "there had been a unity and an ambition for a joint diplomatic process".

Suggestions that a deal could be reached in two months may appear ambitious, but would put Iran back into a better economic relationship with the West in time for June's presidential elections, which conservatives, more skeptical of the deal's value, are now expected to win.

Improved relations with the West might boost turnout among an Iranian public worn down by sanctions and a resurgent Covid outbreak, so could help reformists who had supported the deal only to have their political ground undercut by Trump's actions.

Before the talks Iran said the discussions with the West were solely about how quickly and verifiably the US would lift the sanctions imposed during Trump's presidency.

An Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh, reiterated that Iran would come back into full compliance within hours once the US verifiably lifted the complex mosaic of sanctions imposed after Trump took the US out of the joint comprehensive plan of action in May 2018.

Iran wants sanctions to be lifted in practice as well as on paper so, for instance, it can make oil deals without fear of US action.

It has insisted the talks with the US remain indirect and the Vienna discussions, the most important indirect talks between Iran and the US on the deal for two years, were by the remaining signatories to the deal: Iran, France, Germany, the UK, China and Russia.

The Iranian delegation is led by Iran's deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, a graduate of the University of Kent and a veteran of the talks that produced the landmark 2015 deal.

The new US special envoy on Iran, Rob Malley, has travelled to Vienna but will not attend the talks, instead being available to provide input through the three European delegations. Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, said:
"I think it is a fair expectation that special envoy Malley will be in Vienna for at least the better part of this week. I am not sure that he has got a return ticket in hand. I think his schedule is going to be somewhat flexible."

"I think what essentially ruled out are the maximalist demands that the United States do everything first and only in turn would Iran then act. I don't think anyone is under the impression that that would be a viable proposal."
Price downplayed expectations that there could be direct talks between the US and Iran in this round of discussions, but did not rule them out altogether. He reiterated the US position that it would be looking for a step-by-step route back to mutual compliance with the agreement.

Joe Biden's administration wants to revive the Iran accord, arguing Trump's maximum pressure campaign had not worked. However, it has said this requires negotiations, partly because there are many different categories of sanctions, including some imposed unrelated to the nuclear deal, but also because of deemed Iranian offences such as terrorism, missile procurement or human rights abuses.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, for instance, has been designated as a terrorist organisation under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017. The Central Bank of Iran is also sanctioned for being a distribution point to groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

The presence of representatives from the Iranian Central bank, the Iranian national oil company and the Atomic Energy Authority of Iran at the talks underlines the complexity of the technical task of distinguishing sanctions linked to the deal and those that are not.

The Biden administration would like Tehran to agree to hold wider talks about lengthening and strengthening the existing deal, something Tehran opposes. The US appears to have accepted that this discussion is for a later date.

Both sides have difficult domestic audiences in their parliaments watching for any sign of backsliding. Western capitals are also under pressure to do more to prioritise the release of dual nationals seized by Iran, often on spying charges. The EU is due to impose human rights-related sanctions on a small group of Iranian officials in a gesture of solidarity with those jailed in Tehran, but Hostage Aid Worldwide said the US should make the release of hostages an integral part of the talks with Iran.

Sherry Izadi, wife of the British Iranian hostage Anoosheh Ashoori said:
"There is no hope of an end to this hostage diplomacy so long as diplomatic efforts remain sporadic, unilateral, and fragmented. Iran must be forced to understand that its actions will have punitive consequences that go beyond mere words."
Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was detained in 2016, said:
"The failure to address state hostage-taking head-on means that it has continued to grow as Iran looks for leverage, and different factions compete in elections.

"Western diplomats should be in no doubt when they sit down on Tuesday, that the hostages need to come home first."