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US said considering releasing $1 billion in frozen funds

Talks on US return to Iran nuclear deal ‘intensify’

Negotiations resume in Vienna, with Iranian envoy saying the Biden administration’s offer to lift most sanctions isn’t ‘enough’ for Tehran to reverse breaches of 2015 accord

Political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, Abbas Araghchi, leaves the 'Grand Hotel Wien' where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, May 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)
Political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, Abbas Araghchi, leaves the 'Grand Hotel Wien' where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, May 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

VIENNA — World powers held a fourth round of high-level talks Friday aimed at bringing the United States back into the nuclear deal with Iran, with both sides signaling a willingness to work out the major stumbling blocks.

The talks began in Austria in early April. Russian delegate Mikhail Ulyanov tweeted following Friday’s meeting that “the participants agreed on the need to intensify the process.”

“The delegations seem to be ready to stay in Vienna as long as necessary to achieve the goal,” he wrote.

The US pulled out of the landmark 2015 deal in 2018 after then-president Donald Trump said the pact needed to be renegotiated. The deal had promised Iran economic incentives in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, and the Trump administration reimposed heavy sanctions on the Islamic republic in an unsuccessful attempt to bring Tehran into new talks.

Iran reacted by steadily increasing its violations of the deal by enriching uranium to a greater purity than permitted, stockpiling more enriched uranium than allowed and using more advanced centrifuges, among other moves to try and pressure the powers remaining in the deal — Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China — for economic relief.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, second right, is shown new centrifuges and listens to head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, while visiting an exhibition of Iran’s new nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran, April 10, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

US President Joe Biden says he wants to rejoin the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, but that Iran needs to return to compliance.

The pact is meant to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb, something the country insists it does not want to do, and the government in Tehran has said it is prepared to reverse all of its violations but that Washington must remove all sanctions imposed under Trump.

Still unresolved is what Iran’s return to compliance would look like. Delegates to the Vienna talks concede, for example, that Iranian nuclear scientists cannot unlearn the knowledge they acquired in the last three years, but it is not clear whether Iran’s new centrifuges would need to be destroyed, mothballed and locked away, or simply taken offline.

Because the US is currently out of the deal, there were no American representatives at the talks. Diplomats involved are shuttling between the Iranian side and a delegation from Washington elsewhere in Vienna.

Iran’s delegate to the talks, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, told Iranian state television after the meeting that his impression was that all sides were committed to finding a solution.

“The reports that are being conveyed to us from [the] Americans is that they are also serious about returning to JCPOA. So far, they have announced that they are ready to lift most of their sanctions, but we do not think it is enough,” Araghchi said.

“That is why the negotiations will continue until we reach all our demands in this regard,” he added. “If our demands are met, Iran will be quite serious about returning to its obligations in the full implementation of JCPOA.”

The ‘Grand Hotel Wien’ where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran were taking place in Vienna, Austria, April 27, 2021. (Lisa Leutner/AP)

Between the high-level meetings in Vienna of the so-called Joint Commission, expert groups have been meeting to try and come up with solutions to the outstanding issues.

Alain Matton, a spokesperson for the EU delegation, which is chairing the meetings, said the expert discussions will continue in the days ahead.

“And the EU as a coordinator and facilitator of the JCPOA talks will continue with separate talks with all participants and with the US,” Matton told reporters. “The participants are continuing with discussions, which are held on various levels and which have as their objective the full and effective implementation of the deal by all sides and the US return to the JCPOA.”

Ahead of the talks, a senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the US position, said Washington has laid out the concessions it’s prepared to make and that success or failure now depends on Iran making the political decision to accept those concessions and to return to compliance with the accord.

The official said it remains possible to reach an agreement before Iran’s June presidential election, which some believe are a complicating factor in the discussions.

According to a CNN report Thursday, the Biden administration is considering unfreezing $1 billion of Iranian funds to be used for humanitarian relief.

US President Joe Biden speaks in the East Room of the White House, May 7, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The report, which quoted three people “briefed on the internal deliberations,” said it was unclear if the move would be unilateral, with the network saying one thought is that it could be a goodwill gesture toward Iran.

The funds would be provided in the form of humanitarian aid like food and medicine that can be given to Iran without violating US sanctions, and not in cash, according to the report.

A Republican congressional staffer was also quoted saying that the proposal is opposed by members of Congress who are hawkish on Iran, with some seeing the move as a concession that would weaken the US hand in negotiations.

“Reporting suggesting we are weighing the release of Iranian funds as a unilateral gesture to Tehran is not true, which we made clear prior to publication,” US State Department Spokesman Ned Price said in response. “As we have said, any substantial move by the US would have to be part of a process in which both sides take actions.”

Heading into Friday’s talks, Ulyanov tweeted that he saw positive signs from both sides.

“The head of the Iranian delegation is cautious in his assessment of the current state of affairs at the Vienna talks (very similar to assessments of the US colleagues),” he tweeted. “But both #Iran and #US refrain from pessimistic conclusions. This seems to be not a bad sign.”

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