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US says nuclear deal possible within days if Iran ‘shows seriousness’

Washington says ‘substantial progress made, but cautions that ‘possibility of return to the deal at grave risk’ if talks drag on beyond next week

The flag of Iran waves in front of the International Center building with the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, in Vienna, Austria, on May 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Florian Schroetter, File)
The flag of Iran waves in front of the International Center building with the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, in Vienna, Austria, on May 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Florian Schroetter, File)

WASHINGTON  — The United States said Thursday that “substantial progress” during negotiations in Vienna to save the Iran nuclear deal had been made, deeming an agreement possible within days if Iran “shows seriousness” on the matter.

The Vienna talks, which involve Iran as well as Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia directly, and the United States indirectly, resumed in late November with the aim of restoring the 2015 deal.

That accord had offered Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, but the United States unilaterally withdrew in 2018 under former president Donald Trump and reimposed heavy economic sanctions, prompting Iran to begin rolling back on its commitments.

Stating that “substantial progress has been made in the last week,” a State Department spokesperson told AFP that “if Iran shows seriousness, we can and should reach an understanding on mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA within days,” using an acronym for the 2015 deal.

But “anything much beyond that would put the possibility of return to the deal at grave risk,” the spokesperson added.

Experts believe Iran is only a few weeks away from having enough fissile material to build a nuclear weapon — even if it would take several more complicated steps to create an actual bomb.

President Joe Biden said he is willing to return to the deal and ease some of the US sanctions, provided Tehran resumes its commitments under the agreement.

A technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran, 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Feb. 3, 2007. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, file)

France had warned Iran on Wednesday that time was running out to accept a new deal. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said it was “a question of days,” adding that a major crisis would be unleashed if there is no agreement.

But earlier in the day, Iran’s top negotiator Ali Bagheri said they “are closer than ever to an agreement.”

He called on the other parties to be “realistic” and make “serious decisions.”

Tehran also called on the US Congress to say Washington would commit if an agreement is reached in Vienna.

Iranian authorities had said in 2018 they wanted a “guarantee” that an agreement would be implemented, as the potential of US political turnover had once more brought that into question.

A draft agreement between Iran and world powers would involve a phased return to the 2015 nuclear deal, with both sides initially taking interim steps to curb enrichment and lift some sanctions, according to a report Thursday.

The 20-page draft deal would also include the release of Westerners held by Iran, a key US demand, according to Reuters.

Israel has opposed a US return to the 2015 terms or a similar accord, fearing it would ease Iran’s path to the bomb. Israel’s Channel 13 said Thursday, in an unsourced report on the reported terms of the draft accord, “The feeling in Israel is that within days or weeks there will be a return to the old-new bad deal we knew.”

According to diplomats quoted by Reuters, the draft outline includes a series of steps for all parties to take following its final approval, starting with Iran suspending enrichment of uranium above 5%.

The first phase will include the unfreezing of some $7 billion in Iranian funds stuck in South Korean banks under US sanctions, as well as the release of Western prisoners held in Iran.

Eventually, Iran will return to core nuclear limits like the 3.67% cap on enrichment purity, diplomats said, and sanctions will begin to be waived.

The new agreement is said to entail the US granting waivers on sanctions against Islamic Republic’s oil sector rather than lifting them outright. This will require the renewal of waivers every few months, as was done with the 2015 deal.

A part of Pardis petrochemical complex facilities in Assalouyeh on the northern coast of the Persian Gulf, Iran, Sept. 4, 2018. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

According to the diplomats, the time between the initiation of the deal and when sanctions are waived is not yet decided, but is estimated to be between one and three months.

Iran is also seeking a guarantee that the US will not be able to withdraw unilaterally from the agreement again, which would require an act of Congress. It is also demanding promises that the US will halt pressuring companies not to trade or invest in Iran.

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