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Blinken says little optimism around nuke talks, but not too late for Iranian U-turn

Top US diplomat says sides will know if Iran is serious by weekend, as Tehran submits proposals on lifting sanctions and curbing enrichment it hopes will form basis of talks

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses a press conference during a ministerial council meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, on December 2, 2021. (Jonathan Nackstrand/Pool/AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses a press conference during a ministerial council meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, on December 2, 2021. (Jonathan Nackstrand/Pool/AFP)

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday it was not too late for Iran to revive its nuclear deal with world powers, but cautioned that hopes for the success of the talks were wearing thin.

“I think in the very near future, the next day or so, we’ll be in a position to judge whether Iran actually intends now to engage in good faith,” Blinken told reporters in Stockholm on the sidelines of a meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. “I have to tell you, recent moves, recent rhetoric, don’t give us a lot of cause for optimism.”

“But even though the hour is getting very late, it is not too late for Iran to reverse course,” Blinken added.

The press conference came several hours after Blinken spoke to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett by phone about the talks. According to the Israeli readout of the call, Bennett urged Blinken to immediately halt the nuclear negotiations in Vienna, accusing Iran of using “nuclear blackmail.”

Blinken declined to comment directly on Bennett’s request when asked, but said the US would not allow Iran to use the talks as a feint.

“What Iran can’t do is maintain the status quo of building their nuclear program while dragging their feet on talks… That is also not our view alone,” the top US diplomat said.

“We’ll see what happens over the next couple days but it is up to Iran to demonstrate and to demonstrate quickly that it is serious.”

The Coburg Palais, the venue of the Iran nuclear talks, is pictured in Vienna on November 29, 2021. (Vladimir Simicek/AFP)

An Iranian spokesperson responded to the Bennett-Blinken call earlier by quipping that delegates at the talks would not take instructions from Jerusalem.

Alongside Iran, diplomats from Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia are attending the talks, which resumed on Monday after a several-month hiatus.

US President Joe Biden’s administration, eager to get back into the deal, is indirectly involved in the Vienna discussion.

European negotiators said Tuesday that they will assess the “seriousness” of the Iranian position over the next few days to decide whether to continue the talks.

European diplomats warned there was no time for “niceties” and said the “next 48 hours will be very important.”

Iran has claimed talks are moving ahead. The country’s foreign minister tweeted earlier that a deal is “within reach.”

The negotiations in Vienna are “proceeding with seriousness” and the removal of sanctions was a “fundamental priority,” said Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.

The lead Iranian negotiator said Thursday that European powers had been handed two draft proposals to try to revive the nuclear deal, describing them as the basis for future talks.

Ali Bagheri told Iranian state television the proposals deal with two main issues facing the pact: the lifting of sanctions and Iran’s nuclear commitments.

“The first document sums up the Islamic Republic’s point of view concerning the lifting of sanctions, while the second is about Iran’s nuclear actions,” Bagheri told IRIB TV.

“Now the other side must examine these documents and prepare itself to hold negotiations with Iran based on these documents,” said Bagheri, noting that a timetable for future talks would be set up on Thursday.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri, arrives at the Coburg Palais in Vienna for nuclear talks, on November 29, 2021. (Vladimir Simicek/AFP)

The proposals were submitted on Wednesday, the third day of renewed talks in Vienna to revive the agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which offered the Islamic Republic sanctions relief in return for strict curbs on its nuclear activities.

The deal started to unravel in 2018 when then US president Donald Trump pulled out and began imposing new sanctions on Iran. In turn, Iran, which denies it wants to acquire a nuclear arsenal, has gradually abandoned its commitments since 2019.

Biden’s administration says it will only negotiate measures taken by Trump over the nuclear program, such as a unilateral ban on oil sales — not steps imposed on other concerns such as human rights. But Iran wants a lifting of all US sanctions imposed after Trump’s withdrawal.

A technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran, 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Feb. 3, 2007. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, file)

The goal of the JCPOA is to make it practically impossible for Iran to build an atomic bomb, while allowing it to pursue a civilian nuclear program.

Talks resumed on Monday in Vienna after Iran paused them in June following the election of ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi.

In an interview with the Middle East Eye website published on Thursday, Bagheri said Tehran did not feel under pressure.

“We have told the other side that we are in Vienna to pursue the talks… If they are ready to pursue the talks, we agree to pursue them,” he told journalists in Vienna.

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