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Iran nuclear talks resume in Vienna amid soaring tensions

European official says Tehran ‘puts pressure on everyone’ by accelerating uranium enrichment at Natanz; FM Zarif says ‘no alternative’ to lifting sanctions

Exterior view of the 'Grand Hotel Wien' in Vienna, Austria, April 9, 2021 where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place. (AP Photo/Florian Schroetter)
Exterior view of the 'Grand Hotel Wien' in Vienna, Austria, April 9, 2021 where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place. (AP Photo/Florian Schroetter)

Talks to save the Iran nuclear deal were resuming in Vienna on Thursday amid sky-high tensions, with Tehran preparing to ramp up uranium enrichment in response to an attack on a facility it has blamed on Israel.

After a positive first round of negotiations aimed at resurrecting the 2015 agreement scuttled by Donald Trump, Iran’s push towards enrichment levels needed for military use “puts pressure on everyone,” a European diplomat told AFP.

The International Atomic Energy Agency announced Wednesday that Iran had “almost completed preparations” to begin enriching uranium to 60 percent purity at the Natanz nuclear facility.

Iran had announced Tuesday that it would ramp up uranium enrichment up to 60%, its highest level ever, in response to this weekend’s sabotage at the facility.

File: Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian)

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied involvement but some Hebrew-language outlets reported that it was a sabotage operation by the Mossad spy agency, citing unnamed intelligence sources.

“It definitely complicates things,” the diplomat said, ahead of the talks between the remaining members of the deal — Germany, France, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, and Iran — which had been scheduled to resume at 12:30 p.m. local time (11:30 a.m. Israel time).

But events of the past few days have also “reminded both parties that the status quo is a lose-lose situation,” and have “added urgency” to the talks, said Ali Vaez, Iran Project Director at the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank.

“It is clear that the more the diplomatic process drags on, the higher the risk that it gets derailed by saboteurs and those acting in bad faith,” Vaez added.

Known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the deal has been disintegrating since former US president Donald Trump dramatically withdrew from it in 2018 and reimposed sanctions, prompting Iran to retaliate by exceeding its agreed limits on nuclear activity.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, all parties to the nuclear deal, issued a joint statement Wednesday expressing their “grave concern” over Iran’s decision to increase enrichment, while also rejecting “all escalatory measures by any actor.”

Russia’s representative in Vienna said the deal remained the “only viable solution which can bring the Iranian nuclear program back to the agreed parameters.”

But the Joe Biden administration, while agreeing on the JCPOA’s value, has stressed that it is waiting for Iran to first roll back steps away from compliance that it took to protest Trump’s sanctions.

The Iranian flag waves outside of the UN building that hosts the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, office inside in Vienna, Austria, July 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

An American delegation is attending the talks “indirectly,” staying at a separate hotel.

Washington is “very open-eyed about how this will be a long process,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday.

“It’s happening through indirect discussions, but we still feel that it is a step forward.”

In the meantime, Tehran is reducing its “breakout time” — time to acquire the fissile material necessary for the manufacture of a bomb, said the European diplomat.

Under the JCPOA, it had committed to keep enrichment to 3.67%, though it stepped this up to 20% in January.

Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, though its leaders regularly threaten to annihilate Israel and the West and the International Atomic Energy Agency say Tehran had an organized military nuclear program up until the end of 2003. An annual US intelligence report released Tuesday maintained the American assessment that “Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses in a conference in Tehran, Iran, February 23, 2021. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the Natanz attack had unleashed a “dangerous spiral” and warned Biden the situation could only be contained by lifting the sanctions Trump imposed.

“No alternative. Not much time,” he added.

“It was unrealistic to expect Iran not to respond to such a humiliating attack at the heart of its nuclear program,” the ICG’s Vaez said.

“But the only thing that in the past two decades has effectively curtailed Iran’s nuclear program has been diplomacy, not sanctions or sabotage.”

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