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Talks to save Iran nuclear deal resume, break off just an hour later

Russian envoy calls meeting ‘short and constructive’; Iranian negotiator insists positions are the same; Tehran’s previous proposal had been deemed unacceptable by others

The Coburg Palais, the venue of the Iran nuclear talks, is pictured in Vienna, on November 29, 2021. (Vladimir Simicek/AFP)
The Coburg Palais, the venue of the Iran nuclear talks, is pictured in Vienna, on November 29, 2021. (Vladimir Simicek/AFP)

VIENNA, Austria — Negotiations between Iran and world powers aimed at salvaging a tattered 2015 nuclear deal resumed in Vienna on Thursday after a few days’ pause — and then ended just an hour later with tensions high after Tehran made demands last week that European countries strongly criticized.

“The meeting of the Joint Commission is over. It was rather short and constructive,” tweeted Russia’s representative, Mikhail Ulyanov.

“The participants observed a number of important commonalities in their positions, including with regard to the need to finalize the restoration of JCPOA successfully and swiftly,” Ulyanov said referring to the pact, which is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

But Iran’s top negotiator at the Vienna talks said Tehran hadn’t backed down from its basic position, which has been slammed by Western countries as backtracking on previous compromises and endangering the talks aimed at restoring the deal.

“Iran underlined that it is seriously continuing the talks based on its previous position,” Ali Bagheri Kani yold reporters, according to Reuters. “Iran is serious about reaching an agreement if the ground is paved [towards a deal]… The fact all sides want the talks to continue shows that all parties want to narrow the gaps.”

The meeting of all the deal’s remaining signatories — Iran, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — was chaired by European Union diplomat Enrique Mora.

Mora said the sides “don’t have all the time in the world,” adding: “What I felt this morning was from… all delegations a renewed sense of purpose in the need to work and to reach an agreement on bringing the JCPOA back to life.”

He admitted, however, that the negotiations were “a very difficult endeavor,” and that, “there are still different positions that we have to marry.”

Russia’s Ulyanov told the TASS agency that Thursday’s talks had “removed a number of misunderstandings that had created some tension,” but did not elaborate.

The United States has participated indirectly in the ongoing talks because it withdrew from the accord in 2018 under then-president Donald Trump. US President Joe Biden has signaled that he wants to rejoin the deal.

Washington plans to send a delegation led by Robert Malley, the special US envoy for Iran, to Vienna over the weekend.

European diplomats urged Tehran to come back with “realistic proposals” after the Iranian delegation made numerous demands last week that other parties to the accord deemed unacceptable. Last week’s talks were the first in over five months, a gap caused by a new hardline government assuming power in Tehran.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said this week that the US hopes the next round of talks “proceeds differently.”

“We should know in pretty short order if the Iranians are going… to negotiate in good faith,” Price told reporters Wednesday, warning that “the runway is getting very, very short for negotiations.”

The accord sealed in Vienna in 2015, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was meant to rein in Iran’s nuclear program in return for loosened economic sanctions.

Following the US decision to withdraw and reimpose sanctions against Iran, Tehran has ramped up its nuclear program again by enriching uranium beyond the thresholds allowed in the agreement. Iran has also restricted monitors from the UN atomic watchdog from accessing its nuclear facilities, raising concerns about what the country is doing out of view.

Russia’s top representative at the Vienna talks had expressed hope that an agreement could eventually be reached.

Mohammad Eslami, new head of Iran’s nuclear agency (AEOI), left, and Iran’s governor of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Kazem Gharib Abadi, leave the International Atomic Energy’s (IAEA) General Conference in Vienna, Austria, Sept. 20, 2021 (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner, File)

Ulyanov tweeted Wednesday that contacts with the United States and Iran “prove that both sides are very serious” about reviving the deal, though he added that “their visions of relevant ways and means differ.”

“The task of the negotiators is to overcome these differences. It’s feasible in the light of unity of purpose,” he said.

Meanwhile, Israeli and American military leaders are set to discuss possible military drills to practice destroying Iranian nuclear facilities in a potential worst-case scenario, a senior US official said.

Israel opposes a US return to the JCPOA and Defense Minister Benny Gantz set off Wednesday for Washington. Gantz said he will meet with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Ahead of takeoff for the US, Gantz said, “Iran is a threat to world peace and seeks to become an existential threat to Israel.”

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