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Secretary of State Blinken in Brussels. Photo: Olivier Hoslet/Pool/Anadolu Agency via Getty

The Biden administration's efforts to re-engage with Iran over its nuclear program are coming up against three major obstacles: a lack of direct channels of communication, divisions within the leadership in Tehran, and looming Iranian presidential elections, U.S. officials involved in the talks tell me.

Why it matters: Putting Iran’s nuclear program “back in the box” is one of the Biden administration’s top foreign policy priorities, but the sides have yet to hold direct talks.

  • President Biden says he's willing to lift sanctions and return to the 2015 nuclear deal if Iran returns to full compliance, by rolling back the nuclear acceleration it has undertaken since Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.

Behind the scenes: The Iranians have rejected several U.S. proposals to meet formally or even informally.

  • The U.S. officials tell me all of their communications with Tehran are coming indirectly, through the E3 (France, the U.K. and Germany), Russia, China or the EU.
  • This takes more time and has led to several misunderstandings, the U.S. officials say.

In recent weeks, the U.S. has sent messages to Iran that it is ready to either start with mutual first steps and follow a gradual process from there, or for both sides to immediately return to full compliance with the deal, the U.S. officials tell me.

  • Through the indirect channels, the U.S. has been trying to gauge what it will take to get the talks going. At one point, the U.S. believed the Iranians were ready to accept a step-by-step approach. Then the Iranians made clear that they were not.
  • The U.S. had proposed that the process begin with the U.S. unfreezing Iranian funds held in South Korea, and Iran taking steps to end some of its violations of the deal, according to U.S. and Israeli sources briefed on the matter. The Iranians rejected that proposal.

Between the lines: The Biden administration is struggling to understand how exactly the Iranians want to proceed, and thinks the lack of clarity is due in part to divisions within the Iranian leadership, U.S. officials say.

  • One key debate seems to be over whether to engage with the U.S. before or after the elections in June.

What to watch: Politico reported on Monday that the U.S. is developing a new proposal for Iran in an attempt to get the talks started.

  • But an Iranian official told state TV that Iran won't scale back its nuclear activities before the U.S. removes all sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.
  • "The Biden administration is losing time. If it fails to lift the sanctions soon, Iran will take the next steps, which will be further reduction of its JCPOA commitments," the Iranian official added. 

Where things stand: The U.S. is discussing new ideas internally and with the other parties to the nuclear deal, but no consensus has been reached, one U.S. official told me.

  • “The process will take more time because the discussions between the U.S. and Iran are indirect," the official said.

Go deeper

Latino community of 13-year-old killed by police in Chicago reels after shooting

A small memorial of flowers and candles to Adam Toledo in Chicago. Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty Images

Residents of Little Village, a well-known and predominantly Latino neighborhood in Chicago, are grieving the death of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old Mexican American boy from the neighborhood who was shot and killed by a police officer on March 29, NBC News reports.

Why it matters: Adam Toledo's killing shines a spotlight on police shootings of Latinos, who are killed by law enforcement at the second-highest rate after Black Americans, according to data from the Washington Post.

Super typhoon Surigae explodes to Cat. 5 intensity

Super Typhoon Surigae seen on satellite imagery Saturday morning east of the Philippines. (CIRA/RAMMB)

Super Typhoon Surigae surged in intensity from a Category 1 storm on Friday to a beastly Category 5 monster on Saturday, with maximum sustained winds estimated at 190 mph with higher gusts.

Why it matters: This storm — known as Typhoon Bising in the Philippines — is just the latest of many tropical cyclones to undergo a process known as rapid intensification, a feat that studies show is becoming more common due to climate change. It weakened slightly, to the equivalent of a strong Category 4 storm, on Sunday.

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Biden adviser warns "there will be consequences" for Russia if Navalny dies

The Biden administration warned the Russian government "that there will be consequences" if jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny dies, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN on Sunday.

The big picture: Sullivan also defended President Biden for not mentioning Navalny in a Thursday speech about Russia or in a Tuesday call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying the White House aims to deal with the issue "privately and through diplomatic channels."