U.S. to Remain Engaged on Iran Deal at U.N., Prepares 'Equally' for Plan B

Amid speculation of an opportunity at the ongoing United Nations General Assembly to push forward with yet-again-stalled efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the State Department has told Newsweek that the United States would remain engaged on the matter while simultaneously preparing for a potentially unsuccessful outcome.

Both U.S. President Joe Biden and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi were expected to address the annual U.N. gathering. With their delegations both in New York, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani told reporters in Tehran on Monday that discussions toward restoring full U.S. and Iranian compliance to the nuclear pact known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) were a possibility.

Kanaani noted that Ali Bagheri Kani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, would be in attendance at the General Assembly and, while "there is no specific plan to discuss the nuclear deal," the spokesperson would "not rule out the possibility of talks regarding the nuclear deal."

The following day, a State Department spokesperson also told Newsweek that the U.S. side had "no meetings to preview," but the U.S. chief nuclear negotiator, Rob Malley, who serves as Biden's special representative for Iran, "is in close consultation with our European allies and our allies and partners in the Middle East region on Iran, including on the JCPOA."

"The United States will continue to pursue JCPOA talks as long as we believe doing so is in the interest of U.S. national security," the spokesperson said, "but the administration, along with our allies, is preparing equally for scenarios with and without a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA."

Joe, Biden, Ebrahim, Raisi, combo, picture
In this combination photo, President Joe Biden delivers remarks during an event September 2, 2022 in Washington, D.C. and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a press conference in Tehran on August 29. Win McNamee/AFP/Getty Images

The JCPOA, which lifted international sanctions on Iran in exchange for tight restrictions on the country's nuclear program, was widely hailed as a diplomatic milestone when first reached more than seven years ago by China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the U.S. and the United Kingdom. But Washington abandoned the deal under President Donald Trump, reinstituting sanctions and igniting severe geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

Biden, who served as President Barack Obama's vice president when the JCPOA was first reached, vowed to work toward restoring U.S. participation in the agreement in return for Iran reinstituting compliance. But a mutually acceptable arrangement has yet to materialize from more than a year and a half of negotiations in the Austrian capital of Vienna, even after a "final" draft proposal was put forth by the European Union in July and reviewed by U.S. and Iranian officials last month.

And now the deal is emerging on the agenda for bilateral talks on the sidelines of the newly convened U.N. General Assembly in New York City, where the accord was discussed Tuesday by Raisi and European Union President Charles Michel in a meeting also attended by Bagheri, Iran's chief negotiator. The EU has played a coordinating role in the implementation of the JCPOA and the effort to restore it.

Raisi took the opportunity to declare Iran's right to seek lasting guarantees that the U.S. would not once again renege on its commitments.

"It was the Americans who withdrew from the agreement, and other European countries did not fulfill their obligations towards Iran," Raisi said, according to his office, "so Iran has the right to demand confidence-building guarantees."

He said the lifting of sanctions was a prerequisite to any resolution to their dispute.

"If the safeguards issues are not resolved, what guarantee will there be that the day after the agreement, the three European countries will again propose and pursue the issuance of a resolution against the Islamic Republic of Iran?" Raisi asked rhetorically, "Therefore, Iran's demands to resolve safeguard issues are completely reasonable."

Raisi discussed the matter with French President Emmanuel Macron as well. Here too the Iranian leader defended Tehran's demands for guarantees against future non-compliance by the U.S. and the West, and he also raised the issue of an outstanding dispute with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has insisted on carrying out an inquiry into alleged nuclear residue identified at nuclear sites in Iran.

"The Agency's approach to issues should be technical and away from the pressures and suggestions of others," Raisi said, "and we believe that without the closure of Iran's cases, it is not possible to reach an agreement."

In 2019, Macron reportedly attempted to arrange a last-minute conversation between Trump and Raisi's predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, in an effort to get the JCPOA back on track — but to no avail. Following his talks with Raisi on Tuesday, the French leader indicated that the ball was in Iran's court when it came to the embattled path toward reviving the nuclear deal.

That same day, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and his Qatari counterpart Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani addressed the nuclear issue.

Qatar has played a key role in facilitating diplomatic initiatives across the Middle East and Afghanistan. In his talks with Iran's top diplomat, Sheikh Mohammed said in a tweet that the pair discussed "ways to strengthen bilateral relations & the latest developments in the negotiations to return to the Joint Action Plan with the U.S."

"Looking forward to our cooperative efforts in this regard," he added, alongside a photo of the two men.

Amir-Abdollahian also met separately with the foreign ministers of Lebanon and South Korea, whose vice foreign minister discussed the JCPOA among other Iran-related issues with Malley last week.

The topic was also addressed by Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in his address to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday.

"We in Qatar believe in the necessity of reaching a just agreement on the Iranian nuclear program that addresses the fears of all parties, guarantees that the region is a nuclear-weapon-free zone, and the right of the Iranian people to utilize nuclear energy for peaceful purposes," Sheikh Tamim told the international gathering.

And though both Washington and Tehran have warned they would be prepared for an eventuality in which no resolution was reached, the Qatari royal emphasized that "no one has an alternative to such an agreement, and reaching it would be in the interest of the security and stability of the region, and will open the door to a broader dialogue at the regional security level."

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan offered a preview of what Biden was expected to see in regards to Iran when he took the podium tomorrow.

"He's going to communicate what he's been saying for quite some time, which is the United States has been prepared for a mutual compliance-for-compliance return to the JCPOA," Sullivan said. "And if Iran is prepared to be serious about fulfilling its obligations and accepting that formula, we could have a deal."

He also cited Macron's takeaway from the French leader's meeting with Raisi and said "there will be multiple opportunities for us to consult with the other members of the P5+1, especially the Europeans, while we're in New York."

And though Sullivan noted Tehran was also pursuing JCPOA-related discussions, he denied any planned meeting with U.S. officials and expressed skepticism of any imminent breakthrough without ruling that possibility out altogether.

"Iran, of course, will be having its own engagements, not with any of the American delegation, but with other delegations, including the Europeans," Sullivan said. "We'll see if anything comes to that. I don't expect a breakthrough in New York because it's not the main venue for moving the JCPOA forward, but we'll see what happens."