Iran nuclear talks may restart — but terrorist label spat still unresolved

VIENNA — Iran signaled a willingness to reopen stalled nuclear talks during two days of meetings last week in Tehran — but it hasn’t dropped a final demand holding up a deal. 

Enrique Mora, the senior EU official coordinating the nuclear talks, traveled to Iran in an effort to overcome a seven-week stalemate in talks between the U.S., Iran and Western powers. Senior Western officials told POLITICO that the discussions, which spanned Wednesday and Thursday, created new progress, but that an agreement remained far from certain. 

Negotiators are trying to find a way to revive a 2015 deal under which Iran limited its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The U.S. pulled out of the agreement in 2018, leaving it on life support. 

The revival talks are now hung up on Iranian demands that the U.S. remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a powerful branch of Iran’s military, from the so-called Foreign Terrorist Organization list. Mora has been helping mediate as Iran still refuses to speak directly to the U.S.

According to Western officials, Mora delivered the message that the U.S. might discuss the IRGC — but only once the nuclear talks are settled. Iran didn’t back down but indicated it was willing to restart talks over non-IRGC subjects in the meantime — and might offer potential alternative demands to the terrorist label ask.

As the meetings came to a close late last week, officials gave some public indication of the limited progress. 

Mora’s visit to Tehran had “gone better than expected,” said Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, during a meeting of foreign ministers from the G7 group of wealthy nations. The “stalled” talks had been “reopened,” he claimed. 

A spokesperson of the Iranian Foreign Ministry on Monday said the “meetings in Tehran have set the right course and were moving forward.”

The terrorist label issue is considered the final major sticking point in the talks. The text of a deal is practically finalized, with the exception of two other minor points that Western officials called “technical issues related to sanctions lifting” that should be solved fairly quickly. 

A Trump hangover

The U.S. placed the IRGC on its terrorist list in 2019, part of former President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran after exiting the Obama-era nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

While Washington initially offered to remove the IRGC’s terrorist label if Iran committed to not attack Americans in the region and shelved plans to assassinate former U.S. officials, there is now mounting opposition in Washington among Republicans and some Democrats to the move. Opponents are arguing that the IRGC is a terrorist organization that has killed numerous Americans, and should be treated as such.

Mora transmitted the message to Iranian chief negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani that the U.S. will not recind the terrorist label as part of a nuclear deal, but might negotiate the issue at a future point, Western diplomats said. Mora brought no new U.S. proposals to Tehran.

While Iran didn’t back away from its stance, it indicated it was open to restarting the frozen talks and to continue discussions on non-IRGC issues. 

So now western diplomats are expecting Tehran to put forward potential alternative demands, giving Washington a chance to think about other concessions it could offer. The aim is to find a way around the IRGC hurdle that will let both governments sell the deal domestically. 

If these proposals are realistic, western officials say the parties could meet again for physical talks in the coming weeks — but no decision has been made yet.

“A deal remains far from certain,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson said Friday. “Iran needs to decide whether it insists on extraneous conditions and whether it wants to conclude a deal quickly, which we believe would serve all sides’ interests.” 

The Iranian side also repeated its official line on Friday. 

“A good and credible outcome is within reach if the U.S. makes its decision and adheres to its commitments,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. “Contacts continue.”

Time is ticking

The window for clinching an agreement is closing quickly.

In Washington, President Joe Biden faces a difficult political landscape. Republican and Democratic senators recently registered their bipartisan opposition to removing the IRGC terrorist label in a nonbinding motion, which also urged Biden to address Iran’s support for regional terrorism in the deal — a subject considered out of bounds to negotiators. 

Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear program is advancing. Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations nuclear watchdog, said Iran now has 42 kilograms of 60 percent enriched uranium, a level experts say can be turned quickly into weapons-grade uranium. 

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi told the European Parliament the development was “cause for serious concern.”

Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful. 

Furthermore, the IAEA Board of Governors is set to meet in Vienna from June 6-10. The U.S. and its European allies could be faced again with a situation where they must decide whether to pass a resolution condemning Iran for its behavior. The outcome will hinge on whether Iran addresses IAEA’s concerns about its past nuclear activities — which Western diplomats are skeptical will occur. 

Iran has also arrested more foreign nationals, further straining its relations with European countries. A French couple, who came to Iran as tourists, were detained last Wednesday — the same day Mora began his talks in Tehran.