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Iran nuclear talks resume in Vienna as Tehran expands enrichment

High-level representatives not in attendance at negotiations, amid growing feeling in West that there is little room for further compromise to restore tattered 2015 deal

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani waves as he leaves after talks at the Coburg Palais, the venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna on August 4, 2022. (Alex HALADA / AFP)
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani waves as he leaves after talks at the Coburg Palais, the venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna on August 4, 2022. (Alex HALADA / AFP)

AP — Negotiators from Iran, the United States, and the European Union resumed months-long indirect talks over Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal on Thursday, even as international inspectors acknowledged the Islamic Republic has begun a new expansion of its uranium enrichment.

The resumption of the Vienna talks, suddenly called on Wednesday, appears not to include high-level representation from all the countries part of Iran’s 2015 deal with word powers. That comes as Western officials express growing skepticism over a deal to restore the accord and the EU’s top diplomat has warned that “the space for additional significant compromises has been exhausted.”

Iran’s top negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, met with EU mediator Enrique Mora, Iranian media reported. As in other talks, the US won’t directly negotiate with Iran.

Instead, the two sides will speak through Mora.

US Special Representative for Iran Rob Malley also was on hand, tweeting Wednesday that “our expectations are in check.”

Mora also met Thursday with Russian Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov, who has represented Moscow’s interests in the talks. Ulyanov also separately met with Bagheri Kani.

“As always we had a frank, pragmatic, and constructive exchange of views on ways and means of overcoming the last outstanding issues,” Ulyanov wrote on Twitter.

But going into the negotiations, Iran laid out a maximalist stance. Through its state-run IRNA news agency, Tehran denied that it had abandoned its effort to get America to delist its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization as a precondition to a deal. That has been a main sticking point.

Meanwhile, IRNA also quoted its civilian nuclear chief as saying turned-off surveillance cameras of the International Atomic Energy Agency only would be switched back on once the West abandons an effort to investigate manmade traces of uranium found at previously undisclosed sites in the country.

Those positions could doom the talks. Iranian officials had been trying to offer optimistic assessments of the negotiations while alternating blaming the US for the deadlock, likely worried a collapse of the talks could see its rial currency plunge to new historic lows.

Iran struck the nuclear deal in 2015 with the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China. The deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium under the watch of UN inspectors in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

As of the last public IAEA count, Iran has a stockpile of some 3,800 kilograms (8,370 pounds) of enriched uranium. More worrying for nonproliferation experts, Iran now enriches uranium up to 60% purity — a level it never reached before that is a short, technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%.

In this image made from April 17, 2021, video released by the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, various centrifuge machines line the hall damaged on April 11, 2021, at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, some 200 miles (322 km) south of the capital Tehran. (IRIB via AP, File)

Those experts warn that Iran has enough 60%-enriched uranium to reprocess into fuel for at least one nuclear bomb. However, Iran still would need to design a bomb and a delivery system for it, likely a months-long project. Iran maintains its program is for peaceful purposes, though its officials increasingly are discussing the country’s ability to build a nuclear bomb if it chose — previously a taboo topic there.

Meanwhile, Thursday, those UN inspectors at the IAEA said that they had verified Iran had begun feeding uranium gas into two IR-1 cascades previously unused at its underground Natanz facility. Those cascades will enrich uranium up to 5%.

The IAEA inspectors also verified that Iran had completed the installation of three advanced IR-6 cascades at the plant, each comprised of up to 176 centrifuges. The IAEA said those cascades had yet to be fed uranium. Iran also told the IAEA it planned to install another six IR-2M cascades in a new operating unit at Natanz as well, inspectors said.

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