Iran nuclear talks resume in Vienna amid muted hopes
Vienna – Negotiators gathered in Vienna on Monday to resume talks on reviving Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, hoping rapid progress will be made after the arrival of a hard-line new government in Tehran brought a standstill more than five months.
The remaining signatories to the nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – Iran, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain – will gather at the Palais Coburg, the luxury hotel where the agreement was signed six years ago. The talks come as Austria remains on lockdown over the coronavirus, which began a week ago due to an increase in the number of cases.
The latest round of talks, aimed at bringing Iran back into compliance with the deal and paving the way for the United States to rejoin, was held in June. Since then, the task has become more difficult.
The US is not on the table because it unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump, who restored and increased US sanctions in a campaign of “maximum pressure” to try to force Iran to renegotiate the agreement.
President Joe Biden has indicated that he wants to get back to the bargain. A US delegation led by the US administration’s special envoy to Iran, Robert Malley, is indirectly involved in the talks, with diplomats from other countries acting as mediators.
The nuclear deal saw Iran restrict uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Since the deal collapsed, Iran is now enriching small amounts of uranium up to 60% purity – a short step from weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran also spins advanced centrifuges banned under the agreement, and its stockpile of uranium now exceeds the agreement’s limits.
Iran insists that its atomic program is peaceful. But US intelligence agencies and international inspectors say Iran had an organized nuclear weapons program until 2003. Nonproliferation experts fear brinkmanship could push Tehran toward more extreme measures to try to force the West to lift sanctions.
To make matters worse, UN nuclear inspectors are still unable to fully monitor Iran’s program after Tehran has limited their access. A trip by International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi to Iran last week failed to make any progress on the issue.
Russia’s chief representative, Mikhail Ulyanov, said he had “useful” informal consultations with officials from Iran and China on Sunday. He said that the meeting was aimed at “a better understanding (…) of the updated negotiating position of Tehran.” “Intensive preparatory work continues,” Enrique Mora, the EU official presiding over the talks, wrote on Twitter on Monday.
A delegation appointed by the new president, Ibrahim Raisi, is joining the negotiations for the first time. Iran has made extreme demands, including calls for the United States to unfreeze $10 billion in assets as an initial goodwill gesture, a tough line that could be an opening maneuver.
Ali Bagheri, Iran’s nuclear negotiator, told Iranian state television late Sunday that the Islamic Republic “entered the talks with the strength of serious will and strong preparations.” But he cautioned, “We cannot anticipate a time frame for the length of these talks now.”
Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh indicated on Monday that the United States might “get a ticket back to the room” of the nuclear talks if it agreed to the “real lifting of sanctions.” He also criticized an opinion piece recently written by the British and Israeli foreign ministers, in which they pledged to “work day and night to prevent the Iranian regime from becoming a nuclear power.”
In an interview with NPR on Friday, US negotiator Mali said the signals from Iran were “not particularly encouraging.”
Russia’s Ulyanov said there was pressure to move the operation after a “very prolonged pause”.
“The talks cannot go on forever,” he wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “There is a clear need to speed up the process.”
Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.
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