U.S. 'Open' to First Direct Talks With Iran Since Trump Left Nuclear Deal 3 Years Ago

The United States has said it is open to holding its first official, direct talks with Iran since former President Donald Trump left a nuclear deal between the Islamic Republic and major world powers three years ago.

Following virtual discussions on Friday, Iran and fellow signatories of the 2015 accord known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed they would welcome the U.S.'s return following Trump's unilateral exit in May 2018. Trump's successor, President Joe Biden, has sought to reenter the deal, which was struck at a time when he served as vice president. But so far, Biden has been unwilling to lift the "maximum pressure" sanctions put in place by the previous administration, due to Iran suspending enrichment limits.

But State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in comments sent to Newsweek that the latest moves by the nuclear deal parties represented a "healthy step forward" for efforts to resolve the impasse.

And while he tempered expectations for the first open and direct discussions between Washington and Tehran since the U.S. pulled out of the agreement, he said the Biden administration was open to engaging directly with its Iranian counterpart.

"We do not anticipate presently that there will be direct talks between the United States and Iran through this process, though the United States remains open to them," Price said.

us, iran, flags, united, nations
The U.S. and Iranian flags await the arrival of former Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif before their meeting April 19, 2016 at the United Nations in New York. DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

The sage of the nuclear deal signed nearly six years ago by China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. has been an arduous one since Trump's exit. Increasingly intensive sanctions laid on by his administration not only cut off the potential for U.S. trade ties with Iran, but also warded off burgeoning economic relations with entities in Europe and other parts of the world.

As a result, Iran has walked back from some of its commitments to limit uranium enrichment, citing a clause that allows the Islamic Republic to downgrade its adherence in the face of non-compliance by other parties. Iranian officials have argued these measures could be reversed, and would be immediately in the event that the U.S. would lift sanctions.

But the Biden administration wants to ensure Iran's recommitment before entering the agreement. The nuclear deal has come up in separate discussions between U.S. officials and allies in Europe, as well as China and Russia.

Now, Price said the U.S. wants to move forward with the process to bring both Washington and Tehran back to the initial levels of compliance with the deal.

"We have agreed to participate in talks with our European, Russian, and Chinese partners to identify the issues involved in a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA with Iran," he said. "These remain early days, and we don't anticipate an immediate breakthrough as there will be difficult discussions ahead."

Talks among the U.S. and nuclear deal parties were set to begin in person Tuesday in Vienna. Price said they would "be structured around working groups that the EU is going to form with the remaining participants in the JCPOA, including Iran."

"The primary issues that will be discussed are the nuclear steps that Iran would need to take in order to return to compliance with the terms of the JCPOA," he added, "and the sanctions relief steps that the United States would need to take in order to return to compliance as well."

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also confirmed the outcome of his country's online consultations on Friday. The aim, he tweeted, was, "Rapidly finalize sanction-lifting & nuclear measures for choreographed removal of all sanctions, followed by Iran ceasing remedial measures."

And he shot down the prospect for direct U.S.-Iran diplomacy at this stage.

"No Iran-US meeting. Unnecessary," he wrote.

The U.S. and Iran have had no official diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that saw Iran's CIA-reinstalled absolute monarch toppled and Washington's embassy in Tehran stormed by proponents of the new government. The countries have experienced decades of mutual hostility, broken only briefly by the JCPOA and then reinvigorated by the U.S. withdrawal.

These heightened tensions have played out across the Middle East. While both sides pursued the defeat of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, the divergence in U.S. and Iranian interests has been amplified by their renewed rivalry. Israel and Arab states of the Persian Gulf region have largely sided with the U.S.

Europeans have urged the U.S. to return to the agreement, though they have also expressed concern about other Iranian activities, such as missile development and support for partnered militias across the region. Iranian officials have argued these items would not be on the agenda for nuclear deal talks despite the Biden administration's desire for a "longer and stronger" agreement addressing them.

China and Russia have largely blamed the frictions surrounding the nuclear deal and regional developments on the U.S., which they have accused of interfering economically and militarily across the Middle East.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters Friday that the nuclear deal was "at a critical stage."

"I want to stress that the U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA is the root cause of the tension in the Iranian nuclear situation," Hua said. "We welcome the willingness of the U.S. side to return to the JCPOA. The pressing task now is for the U.S. to lift all illegal sanctions against Iran and long-arm jurisdiction over a third party. This is an inherent requirement of the return to the JCPOA. On this basis, Iran should resume full implementation of the nuclear deal."

Beijing, for its part, "will work with other parties to advance the political settlement process of the Iranian nuclear issue, and at the same time resolutely safeguard its legitimate rights and interests," Hua said.

China and Iran signed a historic 25-year strategic cooperation agreement last week, signaling measures to support the Islamic Republic largely in trade and infrastructure as it continues to face economic woes.

As for Moscow's perspective, Russian permanent representative in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov said Friday on Twitter that the goal of upcoming talks surrounding the nuclear deal would be to discuss "practical issues related to the restoration of full implementation of the nuclear deal, including the lifting of U.S. anti-Iranian sanctions."