US and Iran aim for final round of talks on reviving nuclear deal | Iran nuclear deal


US and Iranian negotiators are are aiming for a final round of talks in Vienna next week on the terms for Washington’s re-entry to the nuclear deal, the Iranian chief negotiator has said, implying a deal is possible before the Iranian presidential election in June.

The delegations, meeting in Vienna in a fourth round of talks, agreed on Wednesday to return to national capitals to receive final instructions on the remaining red lines before a definitive round of talks starting on Tuesday.

“I think good headway has been made with the talks over the past two weeks. A few key issues have remained, and they need further consideration, and decisions should be made about those issues in the capitals,” said Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s chief negotiator. EU negotiator Enrique Mora said he was confident a deal would be reached, but diplomats deeply involved in the talks cautioned some heavy lifting remained.

The talks are focused on three main issues: the precise sanctions the US is prepared to lift; the time Iran is allowed to reverse its steps away from the deal; and how to handle the knowledge Iran has acquired in the many months in which it has not been in full compliance with the deal, including its enrichment of uranium to 60% purity.

The US is prepared to lift some sanctions on Iranian government entities but says those imposed on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) do not relate to nuclear non-proliferation, predate the 2015 nuclear deal and therefore must remain. Continued sanctions on the IRGC would be hard for Tehran to swallow, even if they did not in themselves slow the recovery of the Iranian economy.

The more entities freed from sanctions, the easier it would be for the UK to repay a £400m debt to Iran seen as a barrier to release of some British-Iranian dual nationals.

Talks are also unresolved on how to limit Iran’s use of the knowledge it has acquired, including through greater use of advanced centrifuges, in a bid to lengthen its potential breakout time.

European diplomats warned of a serious crisis if Iran is not able to agree this weekend to extend a three-month agreement it reached with the UN nuclear inspectorate in February that ensured International Atomic Energy Agency cameras continued filming at Iran’s weapons sites, even if the film itself was retained by Iran.

If the arrangement is not renewed before the weekend expiry date, Iran will be in a position to wipe all the video recordings of activity at its nuclear sites, leaving the UN nuclear inspectors effectively blind about what has been happening at the sites since February. Such a development would in effect mean the collapse of the last remnant of the deal and probably derail talks resuming next week.

A European diplomat said: “It is critical that Iran allow the IAEA to continue its necessary monitoring and verification work.”

Iran’s outgoing president, Hassan Rouhani, insisted on Wednesday that the Iranian negotiators were acting according to guidelines set by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and he had conveyed those instructions to the team in Vienna.

“I promise the people of Iran that the Vienna talks will end with the Iranian nation’s victory, and very big steps have been taken in this regard. If someone puts national interests aside to follow factional and partisan interests, they have betrayed the country,” he said.

On Monday, the Iranian parliament, under the control of hardliners, reiterated that Iran should not be required to come back into full compliance until after it has verified that the US has effectively lifted sanctions.

The Iranian position on sequencing is not backed by Russia, a signatory to the deal along with France, the UK, Germany and China. Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, has urged Iran and the US to come back into compliance simultaneously, closer to the negotiating position of the Americans.

The talks are playing into a fevered political atmosphere in Tehran before the 18 June elections, with conservative candidates – always sceptical of the 2015 deal with the US – accused by Rouhani of being keen to see the talks fail. Reformists, anxious to vindicate their original decision to sign the deal, are eager to see it revived and to possibly boost their thin election chances.

The reformists claim the oil export-dependent Iranian economy will not fully recover if US and EU sanctions remain in force. The conservatives say a resistance economy can survive independent of the west and find new markets. Reformists have been badly weakened by Trump’s pull-out from the deal in 2018, but opinion polls show support for a return to it.

The backdrop of the violence in Gaza may make it harder for the Biden administration to sell the deal to US Congress. The former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo had been touring TV studios warning that any Iranian deal would in effect hand Tehran billions of dollars to plough into Hamas rockets ready to be launched into Israel.

Iran’s Guardian Council, the 12-strong unelected body responsible for weeding out insufficiently pious candidates, will announce in the next 48 hours which declared presidential candidates are disbarred. The council is likely to ignore warnings that a field denuded of diversity will drive down turnout, and leaks suggest officials are also moving to restrict social media for the campaign.

It is predicted that a maximum of six candidates will be allowed to go forward, and the reformists will rally around a single candidate, either the vice-president, Eshagh Jahangiri, a fluent TV debater, or the former speaker Ali Larijani.

The reformists were unable to persuade the foreign minister, Javad Zarif, to stand, and face the prospect that Ebrahim Raisi, the head of the judiciary, will win, giving conservatives a clean sweep of Iran’s political institutions.



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