Large gaps remain in US-Iran talks on return to nuclear deal – report

European and American officials quoted saying Biden administration wants Iran to roll back activities to 2015 level, but Tehran doesn’t want to give up advanced centrifuges

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

Major disparities have reportedly arisen in negotiations between the United States, European powers, and Iran over the steps the latter would need to take for the US to return to the nuclear deal.

In recent weeks, the discussions in Vienna have focused on procedures the Iranians must take to roll back their increased nuclear activities, European and American officials told the Walla news site in a report published Thursday.

Last month, Iran said it began enriching a small amount of uranium to 60 percent purity at the Natanz site — its highest level ever, and a short step from weapons-grade nuclear material.

According to the report, the Vienna negotiations were snagging over the large gaps between the sides. The Biden administration was said to have demanded Iran return to compliance with the 2015 deal, but the implementing such a move is problematic due to Iran’s advancements since the deal was first brokered, the report said.

For Iran, returning to the 2015 deal level of nuclear activity would likely mean shutting down advanced centrifuges that it currently operates in violation of the agreement. According to the report, Iran wants to ensure it holds on to these centrifuges under a renegotiated deal.

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 Sunday, April 11, 2021, at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, some 200 miles (322 km) south of the capital Tehran. (IRIB via AP, File)

In a telephone briefing with reporters, a US State Department official was non-committal about whether he thought the sides could return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action JCPOA by June when Iran is slated to hold parliamentary elections.

“Is it possible that we’ll see a mutual return to compliance in the next few weeks, or an understanding of a mutual compliance? It’s possible yes,” the official said, speaking on background. “Is it likely? Only time will tell, because as I said, this is ultimately a matter of a political decision that needs to be made in Iran.”

The US is prepared to “do everything that it can to make sure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon” if indirect talks in Vienna fail to bare fruit, the official said.

The official added that the US would only ease Trump-era sanctions against Iran that it believes are in inconsistent with the JCPOA, while suggesting that others sanctions not in violation with the agreement could remain in place and be used as leverage for subsequent negotiations to reach a “longer and stronger deal” that addresses Tehran’s ballistic missiles program and its “aggressive” activity in the region.

A US return to the JCPOA would be the biggest and most controversial foreign policy initiative in the early months of Joe Biden’s presidency. It would revive a deal that top Biden aides put together during their years in the Obama administration, only to see former US president Donald Trump pull out in 2018 and try to prevent the US from ever returning. Rejoining it — and making the concessions required to do so — would enrage Republicans and likely unsettle Israel and Gulf Arab allies.

The Israelis are adamantly opposed to any US rapprochement with Iran, which they regard as an existential threat to the Jewish state. At least three meetings were held between US and Israeli officials last week, including one Friday with Mossad chief Yossi Cohen at which Biden made an appearance. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Cohen was briefed on the Vienna discussions “and the progress being made there.”

Mossad chief Yossi Cohen speaks at a Tel Aviv University cyber conference on June 24, 2019. (Flash90)

Israel seeks to convince Washington to negotiate an improved deal to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons rather than reenter the limping 2015 accord. Cohen’s visit to Washington comes weeks after an attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear site, which Tehran has blamed on Israel.

As indirect talks continue in Vienna, American officials have refused to discuss which sanctions are being considered for removal. But they have stressed that they are open to lifting non-nuclear sanctions, such as those tied to terrorism, missile development, and human rights, in addition to those related to the nuclear program.

The rollback is expected to be forcefully opposed by Israel and Gulf states.

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