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US, Iran signal possible breakthroughs in nuke talks

The U.S. and Iran are signaling a possible breakthrough on discussions for both countries to return to the 2015 nuclear deal that former President TrumpDonald TrumpWhat blue wave? A close look at Texas today tells of a different story Democrats go down to the wire with Manchin Trump's former bodyguard investigated in NY prosectors' probe: report MORE withdrew from in 2018.

Ahead of the resumption of indirect talks between the two countries in Vienna this week, U.S. and Iranian officials are shuttling around the Middle East in a signal of close regional cooperation and an unprecedented easing of tensions between Iran and Gulf nations. 

Both the Biden administration and Iran are feeling pressure to quickly achieve an agreement that would allow the two countries to return to the Obama-era deal from which former President Trump withdrew.

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An Iranian presidential election in June is being viewed as one major obstacle to the talks, which sources suggest are otherwise promising.

Outside observers say both Biden’s team and Iran know they are racing against a clock.

“There are clear reasons to quicken the pace,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who focuses on Iran. 

“Domestic politics are heating up in Iran... Hardliners opposed to reviving the deal and to engagement with the U.S. more broadly are playing hardball with the goal of stacking the deck in favor of conservative candidates,” she added. “There’s opposition emanating from the U.S. Congress too as Republicans and hawkish Democrats attempt to put up obstacles in the path of a U.S. return to the deal.”

While conservative forces in both countries are an obstacle to reaching a deal, the U.S. and Iran are also under pressure from other world actors to get a deal. That pressure is creating its own sort of momentum.

DiMaggio said the “flurry of diplomacy” signals “that the U.S. return to the deal is now possible and they need to prepare for it. This is a positive development and we’re already seeing some reduction in regional tensions.”

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman said in an interview with Saudi television last week that the Kingdom is seeking “good relations with Iran,” amid reports that Iranian and Saudi officials have held diplomatic meetings in Iraq on more than one occasion.

And Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is reportedly headed to Abu Dhabi to meet with senior officials from the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), in another sign of easing diplomatic tensions between the Gulf and Iran that is seen as promising for a deal.

A delegation of senior Biden administration officials are meeting with leaders and senior officials in the U.A.E., Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The officials include the State Department’s top lawyer Derek Chollet, National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk, and Joey Hood and Dana Stroul, the top Middle East officials from the State Department and Pentagon, respectively. 

Senator Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyCongress barrels toward debt cliff End the practice of hitting children in public schools Public option fades with little outcry from progressives MORE (D-Conn.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joined the talks on Amman on Tuesday. He was on his own trip to the region focused on discussions to resolve the conflict in Yemen.

Murphy is an advocate for rapprochement with Iran, and came under criticism from the Trump administration and Republicans for meeting with Zarif in February of last year.

Likewise, Sen. Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsCutting critical family support won't solve the labor crisis Progressive groups ramp up pressure on Feinstein Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting MORE (D-Del.), a key envoy of the president on foreign policy, was in the U.A.E. over the past few days discussing the conflict in Yemen — where fighting between Iranian-backed Houthi separatists and government forces supported by Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. are wreaking havoc on a population suffering the worst humanitarian crises in the world. 

The Coons visit occurred as Biden on Tuesday held his first call with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed. The two discussed, among other issues, “the nuclear and regional dimensions of the threat posed by Iran, as well as the common quest for de-escalation and peace in the Middle East.”

Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said another key development is relative silence from Israel against the nuclear deal since senior officials met with the Biden team in Washington last week. 

“We’ve seen a kind of begrudging acceptance on the part of the Israelis that this is going to happen and that it’s foolhardy to continue to inveigh against it, it’s just going to antagonize the Biden administration even further,” she said

Another possible breakthrough is on the fate of numerous Americans being held in Iran. The U.S. sees them as political hostages. 

The State Department and White House on Sunday rejected reports that the U.S. and Iran were in talks over the release of detained Americans in exchange for Tehran receiving a reported sum of $7 billion.

But State Department Chief Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter on Wednesday, in response to a question from The Hill, would not rule out that the issue of detained Americans would be part of the discussions in Vienna on the deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). 

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“I’m not in a position to give any specific details to that specifically, but again I’ll just underscore that we welcome a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA… our U.S. delegation will be returning to Vienna this week, to actually continue talks on the next phase of multi-round negotiations which will cover a range of issues,” she said.  

DiMaggio said the release of political prisoners is likely a key feature of the forward momentum for the U.S. and Iran.

“Indirect talks focused on an exchange are underway. With a potential reconstitution of the JCPOA on the horizon, there’s incentive to reach a swap agreement as the prospect of U.S.-Iran diplomacy is revived,” she said. 

Achieving consensus on a return to the JCPOA for both the U.S. and Iran may be easier before the Iranian presidential elections on June 18.

Right-wing, conservative and hardline candidates —  including veterans of the U.S.-terrorist-designated Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — are likely to dominate the ballot in the contest to succeed President Hassan Rouhani, who is seen as a moderate.

While Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ultimately holds authority over all government actions of consequence, political support for elected officials are viewed as having an influence on the supreme leader’s decisions. 

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Slavin said Khamenei is likely weighing the risks and rewards of when to reach an agreement with the U.S. based on the timeline of the election.

“Does the supreme leader want to get this wrapped up, at least in terms of the schedule for a return to compliance while Rouhani is president and then let the next administration be nominally in charge for whatever follow on discussions, or will they drag this out?” she asked.