Iran says US refusal to remove sanctions is main obstacle to nuclear deal

After Western countries said Iran came to Vienna talks with unrealistic proposals, unnamed Iranian official claims deal is in reach if US drops pressure and Europeans are flexible

In this Feb. 3, 2007 file photo, a technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)
In this Feb. 3, 2007 file photo, a technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

Iran repeated its claim Sunday that the United States’ refusal to lift all sanctions on Tehran was the main obstacle to a potential nuclear deal.

“It is now clear that Washington’s reluctance to give up sanctions altogether is the main challenge to the progress of the talks,” the unnamed Iranian official was quoted as saying by Iran’s Tasnim news agency, according to Reuters.

“We believe that a deal is within reach if the US government gives up its campaign of maximum pressure and the European parties show serious flexibility and political will in the talks,” the official said.

Nuclear negotiations in Vienna came to a halt on Friday with Western countries saying Iran had come to the talks with unrealistic proposals.

Israel has vowed that it will not allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday that the Iranians were negotiating “skillfully” on the matter of sanctions.

“The goal of the Iranian regime is the removal of sanctions, and so they came to [the nuclear talks in] Vienna with dozens of advisers and experts in the field of sanctions, because that is their goal,” he said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. “They want the ability to do what they are doing now — in the fields of terrorism and nukes — but with the backing of tens of billions of dollars.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a cabinet meeting at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, on December 5, 2021. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

The landmark 2015 nuclear accord — initially agreed upon by Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, the US and Iran — began unraveling in 2018 when then-US president Donald Trump pulled out and reimposed sanctions, while Iran began to publicly breach the deal.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that the negotiations were halted because “Iran right now does not seem to be serious about doing what’s necessary to return to compliance.” European diplomats expressed “disappointment and concern” after Iran submitted two draft proposals that appeared to undo months of dialogue.

In another blow, the International Atomic Energy Agency said last week that Iran had begun the process of enriching uranium with advanced centrifuges at its Fordo plant in what would be a further violation of the multilateral nuclear accord that world powers are rushing to salvage.

Senior Israeli officials have criticized the approach of the United States to nuclear talks with Iran, but see the current pause in discussions as a window of opportunity to influence the negotiations, the Haaretz daily reported Sunday.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, a blast was reported in the vicinity of an Iranian nuclear site. The explosion was heard in the skies over the Iranian city of Badroud, 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Natanz nuclear plant.

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

Several media outlets said the explosion was not an attack, but rather was caused by a missile as part of a test of air defenses’ response to a potential attack. Some of the reports said a drone was shot down.

Deputy Defense Minister Alon Schuster on Sunday refrained from directly answering questions about a blast in the vicinity of an Iranian nuclear site a day earlier, only asserting he “can’t say” what hit Natanz.

“We hope the whole world will be mobilized for the mission. For that, we’ve allocated a significant sum to increase our readiness. What hit Natanz? I can’t say,” Schuster said.

Israel has reportedly approved a budget of some NIS 5 billion ($1.5 billion) to be used to prepare the military for a potential strike against Iran’s nuclear program. It includes funds for various types of aircraft, intelligence-gathering drones and unique armaments needed for such an attack, which would have to target heavily fortified underground sites.

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