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Russia claims progress at Iran nuclear talks, hopes for results in 3 weeks

Envoy cautions more work needed, says Iranian officials still refusing direct contact with US; Israeli officials reportedly disappointed by US stance seeking swift return to accord

In this file photo dated April 20, 2021, Iran's governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Kazem Gharib Abadi leaves the 'Grand Hotel Vienna' where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner, FILE)
In this file photo dated April 20, 2021, Iran's governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Kazem Gharib Abadi leaves the 'Grand Hotel Vienna' where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner, FILE)

VIENNA — High-ranking diplomats from China, Germany, France, Russia and Britain made progress at talks Saturday focused on bringing the United States back into their landmark nuclear deal with Iran, a Russian official said, adding that the sides hoped to achieve concrete results within three weeks.

But he added that more work and time were needed to bring about a future agreement.

After the meeting, Russia’s top representative, Mikhail Ulyanov, tweeted that members of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, “noted today the indisputable progress made at the Vienna talks on restoration of the nuclear deal.”

“The Joint Commission will reconvene at the end of the next week,” Ulyanov wrote. “In the meantime, experts will continue to draft elements of future agreement.”

He added: “It’s too early to be excited, but we have reasons for cautious and growing optimism. There is no deadline, but participants aim at successful completion of the talks in approximately three weeks. Is it realistic? We will see.”

The US did not have a representative at the table when the diplomats met in Vienna because former president Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the country out of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in 2018. Trump also restored and augmented sanctions to try to force Iran into renegotiating the pact with more concessions.

US President Joe Biden wants to rejoin the deal, however, and a US delegation in Vienna is taking part in indirect talks with Iran, with diplomats from the other world powers acting as go-betweens.

The Biden administration is considering a rollback of some of the most stringent Trump-era sanctions in a bid to get Iran to come back into compliance with the terms of the nuclear agreement, according to information from current and former US officials and others familiar with the matter earlier this week.

Russia’s governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Mikhail Ulyanov smokes a cigarette in front of the ‘Grand Hotel Wien’ where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, April 20, 2021 . (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner, file)

Ahead of the main talks, Ulyanov said JCPOA members met on the side with officials from the US delegation but that the Iranian delegation was not ready to meet with US diplomats.

“JCPOA participants held today informal consultations with the US delegation at the Vienna talks on full restoration of the nuclear deal,” Ulyanov tweeted. “Without Iran who is still not ready to meet with US diplomats.”

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, promised Iran economic incentives in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. The reimposition of US sanctions has left the Islamic Republic’s economy reeling. Tehran has responded by steadily increasing its violations of the restrictions of the deal, such as increasing the purity of uranium it enriches and its stockpiles, in a thus-far unsuccessful effort to pressure the other countries to provide relief.

The ultimate goal of the deal is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, something it insists it doesn’t want to do. Iran now has enough enriched uranium to make a bomb, but nowhere near the amount it had before the nuclear deal was signed.

In this image made from April 17, 2021, video released by the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, Iran. (IRIB via AP, File)

The Vienna talks began in early April and have included several rounds of high-level discussions. Expert groups also have been working on proposals on how to resolve the issues around American sanctions and Iranian compliance, as well as the “possible sequencing” of the US return.

Before the resumption of talks, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan met Thursday in Washington with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, with Israel seeking to convince the Biden administration to insist on an improved agreement, rather than reenter the 2015 accord.

The two-hour meeting was the second this week in Washington involving senior officials from the two countries and underscored Israel’s unease with ongoing indirect negotiations between Iran and the United States in Vienna, the officials said. Although other issues were discussed, Israel used Thursday’s meeting to “express strong concerns” about Iran, one of the officials said.

On Saturday, the Walla news site reported there was disappointment in the security establishment over the results of the week’s discussions, and that top officials in the delegation, including Maj. Gen. Tal Kalman, head of the IDF’s Iran Command, relayed such impressions to Jerusalem.

The belief among security officials is that the Biden administration wants to return swiftly to the agreement and will remove sanctions imposed by Trump with the aim of quickly closing a deal to focus on other priorities, according to the news site.

“The Americans are listening but not volunteering details, and are being stubborn on everything concerning the details of the agreement,” security officials were quoted as saying.

Israel has sought to convince the administration of stricter limitations on Iran as a condition to a return to the accord, as well as curbs on Tehran’s malign regional activities and ballistic missile program, which were not part of the original accord.

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