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US official: We’re updating Israel on Iran talks in Vienna despite differences

In briefing on negotiations for return to nuclear deal, State Department official insists US has been transparent with Israel, including on possible sanctions relief for Iran

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Left: US President Joe Biden speaks about Russia in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 15, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik); Right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a memorial ceremony for fallen soldiers at the Yad LeBanim House on the eve of Memorial Day, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 13, 2021. (Debbie Hill/Pool Photo via AP)
Left: US President Joe Biden speaks about Russia in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 15, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik); Right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a memorial ceremony for fallen soldiers at the Yad LeBanim House on the eve of Memorial Day, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 13, 2021. (Debbie Hill/Pool Photo via AP)

The US has been updating Israel on the progress of indirect negotiations with Iran over a possible return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and will continue a policy of transparency moving forward, a senior State Department official said Wednesday.

The official, who spoke on background during a briefing with reporters, said that the US recognizes Israeli reservations regarding the US desire to reenter the JCPOA, which traded sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program. The multilateral agreement was signed in 2015 by then US president Barack Obama and vacated three years later by his successor Donald Trump, who subsequently levied a host of sanctions on Tehran.

The State Department official said that the US has shared with Iran details of the sanctions it is prepared to lift under a return to a nuclear accord. When pressed, the official revealed that the US had discussed the matter of sanctions relief for Iran with Israeli officials as well.

“We’ve been very transparent that we believe it’s the… sanctions that we need to lift to be consistent with… a return to the JCPOA and for Iran benefiting from what a return to the JCPOA would mean. And I think we’ve said that explicitly to the Israelis,” the official said during the phone briefing.

Demonstrators of an Iranian opposition group protest near the ‘Grand Hotel Wien’ where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria on April 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

“We know there’s a disagreement with Israel’s perspective and we respect that. We’ll try to be as transparent as we can about how we see things and how we want to go and listen to their perspective as well,” the official added.

The sanctions being considered were described as a “third category” of “difficult cases” in which Trump reimposed sanctions that are not related to nuclear activity but were done “purely for the purpose of preventing” his successor, Joe Biden, from reentering the deal.

Iran has pressed for the United States to lift all sanctions imposed under Trump before Tehran rolls back the steps it took away from the 2015 deal in protest. The US has indicated that it is willing to meet Iran halfway on the matter.

The US official said that the United States and Iran have not yet gone into detail on the question of who goes first.

But the official said: “We’re open to different kinds of sequencing which meets our interest — which is to see both sides in full compliance.”

He declined to confirm a Wall Street Journal report that the Biden administration has expressed willingness to ease sanctions on the Iranian finance and oil sectors.

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

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani earlier voiced optimism, saying that negotiations have made “60-70 percent progress.”

With Iran declining to meet the United States, European diplomats have been shuttling between the two sides.

Diplomats from Britain, China, France, Germany, Iran and Russia have been meeting in a luxury Vienna hotel, while US envoys are participating indirectly in the talks from a nearby hotel.

“We have made some progress but there is still a way to go,” said a European diplomat.

“We encourage all sides to seize the diplomatic opportunity in front of us. We condemn escalatory measures by any actor which could jeopardize progress.”

Footage of the Natanz nuclear facility aired by Iranian state TV on April 17, 2021. (Screen capture/Twitter)

The European powers had last week expressed “grave concern” over Iran’s move to boost uranium enrichment to 60 percent in response to what Tehran says was an attack by Israel against the key nuclear facility of Natanz.

The step will bring Iran closer to the 90% purity threshold for military use and shorten its potential “breakout time” to build an atomic bomb — a goal the Islamic Republic denies.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied involvement at Natanz but public radio reports in the country, citing unnamed intelligence sources, said it was a sabotage operation by the Mossad spy agency.

The United States has had no diplomatic relations with Iran since its embassy was seized by radicals in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that ousted the pro-West shah.

AFP contributed to this report.

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