Iran says nuclear talks not stuck, insists it’s committed to 2015 deal

But top Iranian security official accuses Western negotiators of pretending to come up with initiatives to avoid agreeing to any obligations

A general view of Palais Coburg, the site of a meeting where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, on February 8, 2022. (Lisa Leutner/AP)
A general view of Palais Coburg, the site of a meeting where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, on February 8, 2022. (Lisa Leutner/AP)

Iran on Monday said talks with world powers in Vienna to restore the 2015 nuclear deal are “complicated and difficult” but have not hit an impasse.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh acknowledged during a news conference in Tehran that key issues are still under discussion. But, he said, the very fact of its staying in the nuclear deal, despite the US pullout in 2018, was a political decision on Iran’s part.

While claiming to remain in the deal, Tehran has significantly scaled back its commitments under the agreement, known as the JCPOA.

“The negotiations are complicated and difficult as they have reached key issues that need serious political decisions especially by Washington,” Khatibzadeh said. But “there is no impasse in Vienna.”

“If the US and European parties show real determination,” an agreement can be reached very soon, he said. “We need objective guarantees to make sure the US does not leave the agreement once again and that it honors its commitments.”

The goals of the negotiations are to have the US return to the deal by lifting its anti-Iran sanctions and to have Iran return to full compliance with its commitments under the agreement.

“All JCPOA sanctions with any labels must be lifted at the same time,” Khatibzadeh said.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh during an interview, November 2020 (video screenshot)

His remarks came after Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, accused Western countries at the talks of only pretending to be interested in a resolution in order to avoid agreeing to any obligations.

“The work of Iranian negotiators towards progress is becoming more difficult every moment… while Western parties ‘pretend’ to come up with initiatives to avoid their commitments,” he tweeted, according to a Reuters translation of his remarks.

Shamkhani was commenting on his phone call with chief Iranian negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani, which, he said, also left him with the impression that Iran’s delegates at the talks were facing increasing difficulty in acting on instructions from Tehran.

Meanwhile, Russian envoy to the talks Mikhail Ulyanov tweeted that “significant progress has been made in the course of negotiations” on Sunday.

US President Joe Biden is in a tough spot over the talks, gambling on a successful outcome but facing growing bipartisan concern that even if a deal is reached it may be insufficient to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.

The subject has been somewhat on mute in Washington after 10 months of indirect talks failed to achieve the breakthrough Biden hoped for in reviving the 2015 deal repudiated by his predecessor Donald Trump.

Trump pulled the US out of the deal, which was negotiated by the Obama administration, in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran. Iran is demanding those sanctions be lifted before it recommits to some terms of the deal that it breached in response to the US exit, including its increased enrichment of uranium. The US is indirectly participating in the talks between the JCPOA’s remaining signatories, Iran, the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China.

Supporters and opponents of the agreement have been making their voices heard in Washington in recent days, and US negotiator Rob Malley gave a closed-door briefing to the Senate on Wednesday.

Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, speaks with NBC News in 2019 (video screenshot)

“Sobering and shocking,” was the summary provided by Democratic Senator Chris Murphy after the briefing confirmed what experts have been saying — that Iran could be just weeks away from having enough fissile material to make an atomic weapon.

This is known as “breakout time” and even if several other steps are required to actually build a bomb, it is a crucial phase.

Murphy, like most Democrats, supports the Biden administration’s attempts to revive the JCPOA and believes Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran was counterproductive.

Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is among the Democrats who are more skeptical.

Chairman Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, speaks during a hearing of the US Senate Foreign Relations on Capitol Hill, December 7, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool, File)

“I think we’re at a critical moment, a serious moment and we’ll see which way it turns,” Menendez told AFP after the briefing. “But I certainly walked away with a sense of the difficulties of the moment we are in.”

Earlier this month, Menendez warned the White House against reviving the agreement as it is. “At this point, we seriously have to ask what exactly are we trying to salvage?” he said.

Supporters of a negotiated solution warn that if Iran becomes a nuclear threshold state, that could spark a military confrontation with Israel or the United States conducting preemptive strikes on Iran.

Israel, which opposes the nuclear deal, has repeatedly said it reserves the right to strike Iran if it is facing an existential nuclear threat, whether or not the JCPOA is revived.

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