U.S. Weighs EU Plan to Revive Iran Nuclear Deal Abandoned by Trump


The Biden administration is weighing Iran’s response to a European Union proposal aimed at reviving the 2015 international nuclear agreement, with officials on both sides of the Atlantic signaling the possibility that a deal could emerge now after more than a year of false starts.

While the U.S. so far has refused to comment in detail on the proposal, floated by E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell as a last-ditch effort to save the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday the big issues have been “largely settled” and that it was close to what the U.S. was looking for.

“This is the text that the E.U. has put on the table that is substantially based on the deal that has been on the table for several months now,” Price said.

Administration officials say there are no plans to remove the designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization — heading off a political firestorm prompted by reports that the move was under consideration in Washington.

The U.S. openness to the E.U. proposal, coupled with an Iranian response received Monday night that one European described as constructive, raised fresh hopes that Iran, the U.S. and other signatories to the nuclear deal are close to reaching an agreement after months of tortured negotiations. 

Energy markets roiled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been watching closely in anticipation that hundreds of thousands of barrels of Iranian crude could come back online per day once a deal is signed. Brent oil futures fell as much as 2.8% in London to trade at a six-month low on Tuesday as traders weighed the more productive tone of the Iran talks.

With all sides refusing to give details, others preached caution. It’s still unclear why the prospects for agreement would have improved given that the terms of the E.U. proposal don’t differ dramatically from a February draft, said Michael Singh, a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council. 

“It’s hard to see anything that’s fundamentally changed unless things are happening behind the scenes that we just can’t perceive,” he said.

Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, and Biden had made restoring it a top foreign-policy priority. But the negotiations dragged on for months, bedeviled by Iran’s continued nuclear advances, the arrival of a more hardline government in the summer of 2021 and disagreements over what to do about the many non-nuclear sanctions that the Trump administration imposed during its waning days in office.

President Joe Biden has come under intense political pressure from Republicans not to make any concessions given what they describe as its more aggressive behavior more broadly. In recent days, prosecutors charged an Iranian national with planning to kill former presidential aide John Bolton, while U.S. officials have condemned Iranian hardliners for celebrating last Friday’s violent knife attack on writer Salman Rushdie.

E.U. mediators had circulated a “final” proposal for salvaging the deal last week. Iran formally submitted its response to the E.U. on Monday night, and an official familiar with the diplomatic efforts, who asked not to be identified given the sensitivity of the talks, said the Iranian response was constructive. 

The official said Iran’s response still required study and that other parties to the nuclear talks — which include the U.S., China and Russia — are assessing it.

On Tuesday, an Iranian government spokesman said the U.S. should “pay a price” if it withdraws from the deal again, a comment that suggested Iran wants guarantees that the U.S. won’t do so.

Biden’s refusal to offer such a guarantee has been a stumbling block in the talks. The U.S. argued that it can’t make any such promise given that Republicans will almost certainly try to scuttle the deal if they gain control of Congress later this year or the White House in 2024.

Randa Slim, director of the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the sides are “incentivized for their own reasons to basically bring this to some kind of success.”

“Whether they can do it, because of domestic political constraints, that’s a different issue,” she said.