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Russia says Iran nuclear talks ‘positive’ despite enrichment, Natanz sabotage

But as parties meet in Vienna, EU diplomat says Iranian move to further enrich uranium ‘puts pressure on everyone’

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s ambassador to the IAEA, arrives at the Grand Hotel Wien where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place, in Vienna, Austria, Thursday, April 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)
Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s ambassador to the IAEA, arrives at the Grand Hotel Wien where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place, in Vienna, Austria, Thursday, April 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

Russia said Thursday that the latest talks in Vienna to save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal were positive despite fresh tensions, and Tehran’s preparations to further ramp up uranium enrichment.

The latest round of negotiations between Tehran and world powers took place between diplomats over roughly two hours on Thursday afternoon, with Russia’s ambassador to the UN in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov tweeting afterward that the “general impression is positive.”

He added that Thursday’s talks “will be followed by a number of informal meetings in different formats, including at expert level.”

The talks comprised delegations from the remaining parties to the deal — Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia and Iran. An American delegation is attending the talks indirectly, staying at a separate hotel.

A European diplomat had told AFP in advance of the meeting that Iran’s announcement that it would enrich uranium up to 60 percent “puts pressure on everyone.”

The move would take Iran closer to the 90% purity level needed for use in a nuclear weapon. Under the tattered 2015 nuclear deal, it had committed to keep enrichment to 3.67%, though it stepped this up to 20% in January, a rate that is already a short technical step away from weapons-grade levels.

Russia’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mikhail Ulyanov, outside the ‘Grand Hotel Wien’ for the closed-door nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna on April 15, 2021, where diplomats of the EU, China, Russia and Iran hold their talks. (Joe Klamar/AFP)

EU external affairs spokesperson Peter Stano described the announcement as “extremely worrisome from a nuclear non-proliferation point of view.”

“There is no credible or plausible civilian justification for such a decision,” Stano told reporters.

Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani re-stated the country’s long-standing position that “we are not seeking to obtain the atomic bomb,” saying it was a “mistake” for Europe and the United States to express concern that Iran could “enrich to 90% in one go.”

Iran previously had said it could use uranium enriched up to 60% for nuclear-powered ships. However, the Islamic Republic currently has no such ships in its navy.

Tehran says the enrichment move is a response to Israel’s “nuclear terrorism” after an explosion on Sunday knocked out power at its Natanz enrichment plant.

The incident at Natanz was initially described only as a blackout in the electrical grid feeding above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls — but later Iranian officials began calling it an attack.

On Monday, an Iranian official acknowledged that the blast took out the plant’s main electrical power system and its backup.

The remarks appeared to confirm Israeli reports indicating the damage was widespread and Iran will have significant difficulty restoring its enrichment to previous levels in the coming months.

The Natanz uranium enrichment facility buildings are pictured some 200 miles (322 km) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, March 30, 2005. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

The New York Times reported that the blast was caused by a bomb that was smuggled into the plant and then detonated remotely. The report cited an unnamed intelligence official, without specifying whether they were American or Israeli. This official also specified that the blast took out Natanz’s primary electrical system as well as its backup.

Israel has hinted at being involved, but not officially confirmed any role in the attack. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed never to allow Tehran to obtain a nuclear weapon and Israel has twice preemptively bombed Mideast nations to stop their atomic programs.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said late Wednesday that Washington was taking the “provocative announcement” on enrichment from Iran “very seriously.”

“I have to tell you the step calls into question Iran’s seriousness with regard to the nuclear talks,” Blinken told reporters in Brussels.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks about the release of the ‘2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,’ at the US State Department, in Washington, March 30, 2021. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP)

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 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 (JCPOA), the deal has been disintegrating since former US president Donald Trump dramatically withdrew from it in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions, prompting Iran to retaliate by exceeding its agreed limits on nuclear activity.

The 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. Iran has taken a hardline stance, demanding sweeping sanctions relief before it returns to compliance, putting the two sides at a stalemate.

Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Kazem Gharib Abadi, arrives the ‘Grand Hotel Wien’ for the closed-door nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna on April 15, 2021, where diplomats of the EU, China, Russia and Iran hold their talks. (Joe Klamar/AFP)

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

The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency said its inspectors visited the site at Natanz for “verification and monitoring activities” on Wednesday, and that Iran had “almost completed preparations” to enrich uranium to 60% purity.

Iranian 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.

“It was unrealistic to expect Iran not to respond to such a humiliating attack at the heart of its nuclear program,” the Internation Crisis Group’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.”

Further increasing tensions, Israel and Iran have accused each other of carrying out tit-for-tat sabotage attacks on each other’s shipping. On Tuesday, an Israeli-owned ship reportedly came under missile fire off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. Officials in Jerusalem believe Iran is responsible, according to Hebrew media reports.

Also, in 2020, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the scientist said by Israel and the US to head Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program was assassinated in an ambush near the capital Tehran. Top Iran officials blamed Israel for the killing.

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