US sees possible ‘modest’ progress in Iran nuclear talks

But State Department spokesman says it is ‘too soon’ to tell whether the movement is substantive

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price pauses while speaking during a media briefing at the State Department in Washington, on July 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price pauses while speaking during a media briefing at the State Department in Washington, on July 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

VIENNA (AFP) — The United States said Tuesday it had seen possible progress in talks with Iran, but joined European negotiators in pressing for urgency in rolling back Tehran’s nuclear program.

Negotiations resumed Monday in Vienna in a fresh push to make headway on reviving a landmark 2015 agreement that curtailed Iran’s nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief.

“There may have been some modest progress,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington.

“But it is in some ways too soon to say how substantive that progress may have been. At a minimum, any progress, we believe, is falling short of Iran’s accelerating nuclear steps and is far too slow.”

Former US president Donald Trump in 2018 withdrew from the nuclear accord and imposed a slew of punishing sanctions, including a unilateral US ban on Iran selling its key export of oil.

US President Joe Biden supports a return to the agreement, but Iran has kept taking steps away from compliance as it presses for sanctions relief.

People walk past Palais Coburg, where closed-door nuclear talks are taking place in Vienna, Austria, on December 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Gruber)

The Vienna talks began after Biden’s election, but stopped in June as Iran elected a new ultraconservative government. They resumed in late November with Iran agreeing to keep talking after a brief break.

“This negotiation is urgent,” negotiators from Britain, France and Germany said in a statement.

“We are clear that we are nearing the point where Iran’s escalation of its nuclear program will have completely hollowed out the JCPOA,” the so-called E3 powers said, referring to the deal’s official name by its acronym.

“That means we have weeks, not months, to conclude a deal before the JCPOA’s core non-proliferation benefits are lost.”

Israel has warned of military options if the Islamic Republic’s program advances and is suspected in a shadowy campaign that has included the assassination of Tehran’s top nuclear scientist.

The Biden administration has also warned of a return to pressure if talks fail and Iran pursues its nuclear work.

Iran was in compliance with the 2015 deal before Trump’s withdrawal but has since taken key steps including stepping up its enrichment of uranium, although it denies that it wants to acquire a nuclear arsenal.

On Saturday, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran director Mohammad Eslami said Tehran had no plans to enrich uranium beyond 60 percent, even if the Vienna talks fail.

Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service Enrique Mora speaks to journalists after a meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in Vienna, on December 17, 2021. (Alex Halada/AFP)

Eslami said the enrichment levels were related to the needs of the country, in remarks published by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

In response, E3 negotiators said Tuesday that 60% enrichment was still “unprecedented for a state without nuclear weapons.” Military-grade levels are around 90%.

“Its increasing 60% stockpile is bringing Iran significantly closer to having fissile material, which could be used for nuclear  weapons,” they said.

The US did not specify areas of progress, but Russia — which is participating along with China and the Europeans — said a working group had a “useful meeting” on nuclear issues and informal discussions on lifting sanctions.

“We observe indisputable progress,” Moscow’s ambassador to the United Nations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, wrote on Twitter.

US negotiator Rob Malley is participating indirectly, with European diplomats shuttling between hotels, as Iran refuses direct contact with the US.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was quoted by state news agency IRNA on Tuesday as saying the negotiations were “on a good track.”

“With the goodwill and seriousness from the other parties, we can consider [reaching] a quick agreement in the near future,” he said.

European Union diplomat Enrique Mora, who is chairing the talks, said on Monday that all sides were showing “a clear will to work toward the successful end,” but that “very difficult” negotiations lay ahead.

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