A seventh round of nuclear negotiations billed as a “last chance” to rehabilitate the 2015 nuclear deal came to an inconclusive close, as Iranian officials agreed to “an agenda” for negotiations over key impediments to the rehabilitation of the 2015 nuclear deal and then called it a day.

“It was better than it might have been,” a senior State Department official told reporters. “It was worse than it should have been, which leaves us in an uncertain position as to whether we can get to where we need to go in the short time that we have to get there.”

That anti-climactic conclusion allows for the possibility of more talks to restore the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, despite Western surprise that the Iranian delegation withdrew as promptly as it did. It’s an uncomfortable position for Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s team, which fears that Iranian nuclear research will “render the JCPOA a corpse that cannot be revived” but hopes that the pact could still defuse a nuclear crisis in the Middle East.

“We now have a common understanding of what the text will be that will serve as the basis for negotiations on the nuclear issues,” the senior State Department official said. "That’s, again, a welcome step, but I’d also caution that we should curb our enthusiasm because we’re now [essentially] where we were last June. ... What we have is an agenda of issues to be examined, not a set of solutions to be accepted.”


That’s a small shift from earlier this month, when the Iranian delegation to the Vienna talks demanded wholesale capitulation from the United States with respect to the lifting of U.S. sanctions while torching the tentative compromises brokered by Iran’s previous president. That posture raised the likelihood that newly inaugurated Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi prefers to continue developing nuclear weapons rather than agree to a constraint on the weapons program — a fear only partially allayed by the latest conversations.

“We have communicated both through the Europeans and directly to Iran our view on their continued forward progress on the program, our alarm about it,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday during a Council on Foreign Relations event when asked about the negotiating process. “It’s not going well, in the sense that we do not yet have a pathway back into the JCPOA.”

Russia, which is also a party to the negotiating process given its status as a signatory to the original deal, deemed the week “successful” despite the Iranian withdrawal.

“It prepared sound basis for more intensive negotiations,” Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s envoy to the International Organizations headquartered in Vienna, wrote on Twitter. “It is fully confirmed that further work will be based on the results of the previous rounds.”

Iranian officials signaled that they haven’t made any fundamental change to their negotiating positions. "If the other party accepts Iran's logical views, the next round of talks can be the last round,” Iranian negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani said Friday.

The United Kingdom, France, and Germany described Bagheri Kani’s decision to return to Tehran for more consultations as “a disappointing pause in negotiations.” Another senior official in President Joe Biden’s administration added that the amount of time that Iran needs to acquire a nuclear weapon is now "unacceptably short," raising the importance of the next round of talks, which remain unscheduled.


“I hope it will be during 2021,” European Union negotiator Enrique Mora told reporters. “For the eighth round, we have a lot of work ahead, a very complex task, I have to say. ... Difficult political decisions have to be taken.”