BRUSSELS — For the first time in many months, European officials expressed growing optimism on Tuesday that Iran and the United States could agree on a revival of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Just before midnight on Monday, Iran sent in Tehran its promised response to what the European Union has called a final text of an agreement to restore the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, which former President Donald J. Trump leaving in 2018.
The response, after tough internal talks in Iran, has been encouraging, officials said. It wasn’t a full yes, but it didn’t raise any significant new objections. Instead, Iran is asking for more clarification on assurances that the United States will lift the punitive economic sanctions and that such guarantees will be in place once President Biden leaves office.
Earlier on Monday, Iran’s foreign minister had called on the United States to show flexibility to resolve three outstanding issues. The state-run IRNA news agency gave no details on Tuesday, but said: “The differences relate to three issues, in which the United States has expressed its verbal flexibility in two cases, but it should be included in the text. The third issue concerns ensuring the continuation of the JCPOA, which relies on the realism of the United States.”
Nabila Massrali, speaking for the European Union, said of Iran’s response: “We are studying it and consulting with the other JCPOA participants and the US on the way forward.”
Understand the Iran Nuclear Deal
The prospect of a return to power from Mr Trump, who called the 2015 deal the worst in history before falling apart, has hung over these 16 months of talks. Biden’s hopes for a better deal, “longer and stronger,” as his officials put it early on, have been dashed. But Iran has progressed so far in building highly enriched uranium that it can now build a nuclear weapon, which it has always denied wanting to do.
The 2015 agreement reduced Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium enough to give the United States and its allies at least a year of “breakout time” — the amount of time it would take Iran to build a bomb if it wanted to. That “breakthrough time” can now be measured in days or weeks, which is why Mr. Biden wants to restore the old deal, even if it is weaker than before, as Iran would have to give up almost all of the enriched uranium it has stockpiled since 2018.
Yet, in the meantime, Iran has developed technical knowledge about enrichment that cannot be scrapped and learned how to build advanced centrifuges banned under the original deal, which critics say makes even a revival of the deal less valuable.
According to the latest public count, Iran has a stockpile of some 3,800 kilograms of enriched uranium, well above the limits of the 2015 agreement. Under that deal, Tehran would only be able to enrich uranium to 3.67 percent purity, while keeping a stock of uranium of 300 kilograms under constant surveillance by surveillance cameras and international inspectors.
But now Iran is enriching uranium to 60 percent purity – useless for civilian applications and a short step away from bomb quality.
At the same time, in a separate dispute with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog that is supposed to monitor every deal, Iran has turned off key surveillance cameras and has not allowed the agency to replace memory cards.
In particular, Iran’s response did not include the IAEA’s earlier demand that the three-year investigation into unexplained deposits of highly enriched uranium, for which Iran has not been held accountable, should be halted. But officials said the dispute with the IAEA was an important but separate issue from the nuclear deal, which would not block the agreement or the implementation of the deal.
On Monday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States would share its own response with the European Union, which is chairing the talks, and urged Iran to make “excessive demands” beyond the to drop the nuclear deal.
“The only way to achieve a mutual re-establishment of JCPOA compliance is for Iran to drop further unacceptable demands that are beyond the scope of the JCPOA,” Mr Price said.
Farnaz Fassihi contributed from New York.