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US official suggests possible ‘impasse’ with Iran on nuclear talks

Tehran demands all sanctions since 2017 under Trump administration be lifted; Washington says it offered ‘very serious’ ideas but questions Iran’s intentions

Abbas Araghchi, political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, arrives at the Grand Hotel in Vienna on April 6, 2021, where diplomats of the EU, China, Russia and Iran will hold talks. (Joe Klamar / AFP)
Abbas Araghchi, political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, arrives at the Grand Hotel in Vienna on April 6, 2021, where diplomats of the EU, China, Russia and Iran will hold talks. (Joe Klamar / AFP)

A senior US State Department official suggested that the US and Iran may be at an impasse in talks to revive the Iranian nuclear deal, due to Tehran’s demands to lift all sanctions imposed under the Trump administration since 2017.

“If Iran sticks to the position that every sanction that has been imposed since 2017 has to be lifted or there will be no deal, then we are heading towards an impasse,” the senior US official told reporters on a conference call cited by Reuters late Friday.

Two working groups that have been meeting in Vienna since Tuesday to brainstorm ways to secure the lifting of American sanctions and Iran’s return to compliance with the deal reported their initial progress to a joint commission of diplomats from the world powers that remain in the original 2015 deal — France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia. The Trump administration withdrew the US from the agreement in 2018.

The United States under the Biden administration has said it is prepared to lift “sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA,” referring to the full name of the agreement – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Journalists wait in front of the Grand Hotel Wien where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, Tuesday, April 6, 2021. (AP /Florian Schroetter)

“All Trump sanctions were anti-JCPOA & must be removed—w/o distinction between arbitrary designations,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted on Friday.

The State Department official said there has been some progress in ongoing indirect talks in Vienna “but certainly not enough.”

“The United States team put forward a very serious idea and demonstrated a seriousness of purpose on coming back into compliance if Iran comes back into compliance,” the official told reporters as talks broke for the weekend.

But the official said the US was waiting for its efforts to be “reciprocated” by Iran.

“We saw some signs of it but certainly not enough. There’s still question marks about whether Iran has the willingness to… take the pragmatic approach that the United States has taken to come back into compliance with its obligations under the deal,” he said.

US President Joe Biden supports a return to the 2015 agreement trashed by his predecessor Donald Trump under which Iran drastically scaled back nuclear work in return for promises of sanctions relief.

Iran has demanded that the United States first lift all sanctions against it before it rolls back moves violating nuclear compliance that it has taken.

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

The nascent talks aimed at bringing the US back into the agreement did not show any immediate signs of progress on Friday, but delegates recounted a constructive atmosphere and resolved to continue the discussions.

The talks took place without the United States, which unilaterally left the deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in 2018, under then-president Trump. He embarked on a campaign of “maximum pressure” by restoring previous sanctions and adding new ones on Iran.

But an American delegation headed by the Biden administration’s special envoy for Iran, Rob Malley, also has been in the Austrian capital this week. Representatives from the other world powers have been shuttling between the US and the Iranians to facilitate indirect talks.

In this file photo taken on May 7, 2018 Rob Malley, former US negotiator during the Iran nuclear program negotiations and current CEO at the International Crisis Group in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

After the US withdrawal, Iran has been openly violating the deal’s restrictions, steadily increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium, increasing the purity it is enriching, and installing and operating new, more efficient centrifuges, among other things.

Biden, who was vice president under Barack Obama when the original deal was negotiated, has said he wants to bring the US back into the deal but that Iran must reverse its violations.

Iran argues that Washington’s departure from the deal was the first violation and that the US must make the first move and remove sanctions before Iran returns to compliance.

As the talks opened, China’s representative in Vienna, Wang Qun, backed the Iranian stance. “We, in China, have a saying to the effect that the one who ties the knot should be the one to undo it,” he said.

Complicating matters further, Tehran argues that the US needs to drop all sanctions, including measures not related to the deal and Iran’s nuclear program.

Technicians work at the Arak heavy water reactor’s secondary circuit, as officials and media visit the site, near Arak, 150 miles (250 kilometers) southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, December 23, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

The deal’s ultimate goal is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, something it insists it does not 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.

Israel is strongly opposed to a US return to the nuclear deal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Wednesday that Israel will not be bound by a revitalized pact between world powers and Iran, declaring that the Jewish state is obligated to defend itself against those who seek to destroy it.

Israel has repeatedly communicated its opposition to returning to the deal to Washington. The sides recently reestablished a bilateral group for cooperating in the effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms, agreeing to set up a joint team for sharing intelligence about Iran’s nuclear program.

Additionally, Mossad spy agency chief Yossi Cohen will travel to Washington in the coming days for meetings with top officials in the White House and the American intelligence community, Channel 13 news reported Wednesday.

According to the report, Cohen will present evidence that Israel says shows Iran is lying and hiding details about its nuclear program from the world, in a bid to prevent the US from reentering the deal in its original form.

Israel and Iran have accused each other recently of attacking a number of merchant ships, damaging them with explosives. The vessels in each case were only lightly damaged and there were no reported injuries in the incidents.

On Tuesday morning, limpet mines were reportedly detonated on the MV Saviz, a cargo ship off the coast of Yemen that has been allegedly used for years by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a command-and-control center for its operations in the region. An American official attributed the strike to Israeli commandos.

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