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US set to join talks aimed at salvaging Iran nuclear deal

Washington will indirectly communicate with Tehran in negotiations in Vienna; neither side appears willing to take first step to begin process back to deal

Illustrative: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside of Bushehr, Iran, January 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Iranian Presidency Office, Mohammad Berno, File)
Illustrative: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside of Bushehr, Iran, January 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Iranian Presidency Office, Mohammad Berno, File)

VIENNA, Austria (AFP) — The United States will on Tuesday join talks in Austria’s capital Vienna aimed at salvaging an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, which Washington withdrew from under then-president Donald Trump in 2018.

US President Joe Biden has said he is ready to reverse the decision of his predecessor and return to the 2015 agreement, which was supposed to ensure that Iran did not develop a military nuclear program.

But Iran is demanding an end to crippling sanctions imposed by Trump and has refused to meet US negotiators at the latest talks, meaning European players will act as intermediaries.

Iran confirmed in January it was enriching uranium to 20 percent purity, well beyond the threshold set by the 2015 deal and a short technical jump from weapons-grade enrichment.

Nevertheless, Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group, which monitors conflicts, tweeted that the talks represent “an important marker that both U.S. & Iran are serious about breaking the inertia.”

Since neither side appears willing to take the first step, experts such as Vaez have suggested the negotiators could make a “gesture-for-gesture” deal to break the deadlock.

The European Union will preside over talks between current members of the 2015 pact — Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia and Britain — set to begin on Tuesday.

The US delegation will meet in a different place with EU negotiators acting as go-betweens.

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)

Kelsey Davenport, director for Non-proliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association think-tank, said the format was not ideal but added the EU was well situated to break the stalemate.

She called for a “bold first step by both sides” which she hoped would inject “much-needed momentum” into the process.

Washington, for example, could unfreeze Iranian funds held in foreign banks to facilitate humanitarian trade, and Tehran could stop enriching uranium beyond the levels agreed in the 2015 accord, said Davenport.

“The problem is all the irreversible things, like the research activities Tehran has undertaken,” a Vienna-based diplomat pointed out.

Nor is it clear that the US administration is willing to lift all of its sanctions, as Iran is demanding.

On the eve of the talks, Rob Malley, US special envoy on Iran, talked only of removing “those sanctions that are inconsistent with the deal.”

“If we’re realistic about what both sides have to do… we could get there,” he told US broadcaster PBS.

“But if either side takes a maximalist position and says that the other side has to do everything first before it’s going to move one inch, I think it’s hard to see how this succeeds.”

Israel is strongly opposed to a return to the deal in its original form, and has communicated as much 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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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