Iran reports progress in nuclear talks; discusses traces of uranium with IAEA

But Foreign Ministry spokesman cautions that ‘practical solutions are still far away’

Various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, on April 17, 2021. (Screenshot/Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting-IRIB, via AP)
Various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, on April 17, 2021. (Screenshot/Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting-IRIB, via AP)

High-level talks in Vienna aimed at bringing the United States back into the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran are moving ahead, with experts working on drafting proposals this week, but a solution is still far, Iranian and Russian officials said Monday.

“We are on the right track and some progress has been made, but this does not mean that the talks in Vienna have reached the final stage,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said.

Russia’s representative Mikhail Ulyanov said: “We can note with satisfaction that the negotiations [are] entering the drafting stage… Practical solutions are still far away, but we have moved from general words to agreeing on specific steps towards the goal.”

Separately, the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran on Monday began “to engage in a focused process” aimed at clarifying IAEA queries about the possible previous presence of nuclear material at undeclared sites, the UN’s nuclear watchdog said.

“As agreed in March… the discussions are being held at the level of technical experts. Today’s meeting took place in Vienna,” the IAEA said in a statement to AFP.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi has been pushing Iran for answers on the three sites where inspections had revealed traces of uranium of human-made origin, suggesting they were once connected to Iran’s nuclear program.

After Iran agreed to have its technical experts talk with those at the IAEA, Grossi said he hoped to “come to some satisfactory outcome” by the next IAEA board meeting in June.

One of the sites in question is reportedly a location alleged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be a “secret atomic warehouse.”

The US unilaterally left the nuclear agreement, which promised Iran economic incentives in return for curbs on its nuclear program, in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump, who said it needed to be renegotiated and imposed crippling sanctions.

In response, Iran has steadily been violating the restrictions set by the deal, by enriching uranium far past the purity allowed and stockpiling vastly larger quantities, in a thus-far unsuccessful effort to force the other countries involved to provide economic relief that would offset the American sanctions.

US President Joe Biden wants to return Washington to the deal, and Iran has been negotiating with the five remaining powers — Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia — for the past two weeks on how that might take place. Diplomats from the world powers have been shuttling between the Iranian delegation and an American one, which is also in Vienna but not talking directly with the Iranian side.

Two expert groups have been brainstorming solutions to the two major issues: The rollback of American sanctions on one hand, and Iran’s return to compliance on the other.

File: European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell speaks during a media conference in Brussels, Monday, March 22, 2021 (Aris Oikonomou, Pool via AP)

From the perception of the E3, the three western European countries involved in the talks, there is “progress and the will to move forward” in Vienna, German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr said.

“Overall, we may be, and hopefully are on a path of rapprochement,” she told reporters in Berlin. “But there are still many, many open questions.”

European Union Foreign Policy chief Josep Borrel was also optimistic saying “I think that both parties are really interested in reaching an agreement, and they have been moving from general to more focused issues, which are clearly, on one side sanction-lifting, and on the other side, nuclear implementation issues,” Reuters reported.

An Iranian official said that if an agreement is reached on a process to remove all the US sanctions, Tehran may be willing to limit uranium enrichment to 20 percent in exchange for the freeing up of Iranian money that is being held in other countries due to US measures, Reuters reported citing Iranian state media.

Iran is claiming some $20 billion in oil revenue is blocked in countries including Iraq, China, and South Korea.

“Unblocking Iran’s funds is a good start. An interim deal will give us time to work on removal of all sanctions on Iran,” the unnamed Iranian official was quoted as saying.

A US state department spokesman told Reuters that representatives at the talks were “exploring concrete approaches concerning the steps both Iran and the US would need to take to return to mutual compliance.

“There have been no breakthroughs, but we did not expect this process to be easy or quick,” the spokesman noted.

Political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, Abbas Araghchi, leaves the ‘Grand Hotel Wien’ where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, April 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Florian Schroetter)

Already on Saturday, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, said that Tehran had proposed draft agreements that could be a basis for negotiations.

“We think that the talks have reached a stage where parties are able to begin to work on a joint draft,” Araghchi told Iranian state television. “It seems that a new understanding is taking shape, and now there is agreement over final goals.”

“The path is better known, but it will not be easy path,” Araghchi added. “It does not mean that differences of views have come to the end.”

Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told Fox News Sunday that the Vienna talks had been “constructive,” but he wouldn’t give specific details on the proposals.

“What I will say is that the United States is not going to lift sanctions unless we have clarity and confidence that Iran will fully return to compliance with its obligations under the deal,” he said.

The ultimate goal of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, something it insists it doesn’t want to do. Iran now has enough enriched uranium to make a bomb, but nowhere near the amount it had before the nuclear deal was signed.

Challenges also remain outside of the negotiations.

An attack suspected to have been carried out by Israel recently struck Iran’s Natanz nuclear site, causing an unknown amount of damage. Tehran retaliated by beginning to enrich a small amount of uranium up to 60% purity, its highest level ever. Inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency also could be disrupted without an agreement.

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