Iran nuclear talks enjoy 'better atmosphere': EU

January 15, 2022 - 21:28

TEHRAN– International talks to save the Iran nuclear deal have entered the New Year with positive signals emerging, including the European Union saying Friday that a deal remained possible.

There has been a marked shift in tone since the current round began in November, even if the Western powers complain how slow the process is.

"There's a better atmosphere since Christmas -- before Christmas I was very pessimistic," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Friday, AFP reported.

"Today I believe reaching an accord is possible," even within the coming weeks, he said after an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brest, France.

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman said earlier this week that efforts by "all parties" to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), had resulted in "good progress" during the Vienna talks.

And Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that the negotiations had "accelerated" and that "the chances of reaching a solution have risen".

This has also been echoed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, TASS reported on Friday.

The Biden administration "can and should provide assurances that companies that engage the Iranian market are immune to U.S. penalties as long as Iran is in compliance with the deal."

"There has been real progress […] on the Iranian nuclear program; there is a real desire, between Iran and the U.S., first and foremost, to understand concrete concerns and understand how these concerns could be accounted for in the general package," Lavrov announced during a press conference while elaborating on Russian diplomatic activities in 2021.

But French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking next to Borrell on Friday, reiterated his view that the talks were progressing "much too slowly to be able to reach a result".

France currently chairs the EU's rotating presidency.

Continuous negotiations to salvage the nuclear deal resumed on 29 November after they were suspended in June as Iran elected a new president.

'Modest progress'

The 2015 deal -- agreed by Iran, the United States (under Democratic president Barack Obama), China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany -- offered Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

But Republican President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out in May 2018 and reimposed biting sanctions, prompting Tehran to begin rolling back on its commitments one year later.

At the time Iran announced if the Europeans party to the nuclear agreement compensate Iran for the sanction it will reverse its decision. However, the Europeans did nothing.

They just paid lip service to the agreement. 

Determined to revive the deal, Trump's successor Joseph Biden, a Democrat who was Obama's vice president, sent an American delegation to Vienna to participate indirectly in the talks.

European diplomats have been shuttling between the talks venue at a luxury hotel and where the U.S. team is based.

U.S. State Department Ned Price said on Wednesday that although there had been "modest progress in recent weeks" this was "not sufficient" to secure a return to the deal.

The main aims of the talks are to take the U.S. back into the JCPOA, and bring Iran back into line with the limits the deal laid down on its nuclear activities.

Among the outstanding bones of contention between Iran and Western powers are "sanctions relief, guarantees that the U.S. will never again renege,... (and) the degree to which Iran has to roll back its nuclear program," according to Ali Vaez, Iran specialist at the International Crisis Group.

He said that when it comes to verifying sanctions have been lifted, this will be "possible in two areas: Iran's oil exports and its ability to repatriate the generated oil revenues and frozen assets".

But the subject of future U.S. actions is trickier as "there is no guarantee that any U.S. administration can provide that would bind the hands of its successor," he said.

But Vaez said the Biden administration "can and should provide assurances that companies that engage the Iranian market are immune to U.S. penalties as long as Iran is in compliance with the deal."

When it comes to dealing with the physical evidence of Iran's increased nuclear activity, "the West wants Iran to destroy its advanced centrifuges" and the uranium enriched above JCPOA limits "will either have to be shipped to Russia or blended down".

A European diplomat told AFP that while Iran was resisting the idea of destroying centrifuges, "putting them under seal or a range of intermediate solutions" were also on the table.

Pressure from hawks

While the various delegations haven't set a deadline for success, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday that there were only "a few weeks left" to save the deal, pointing to the increases in uranium enrichment Iran has been undertaking.

Blinken said that in the case of the talks failing, the U.S. was "looking at other steps, other options" with its allies.

Vaez said new UN sanctions could be an option but U.S. hawks, mainly among the Republicans, opposed to the deal want a campaign of economic and diplomatic pressure backed up by the option of military action.

For example, in an interview with Fox News on Friday, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo said the Biden administration is “living in a fantasy world disconnected from the real world that was the JCPOA.”

Julia Masterson from the Arms Control Association think tank said the deal can be restored if both sides "are creative and flexible."

According to Politico, Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, has also said, “While President Biden and his team should have moved earlier and faster last year to re-engage with Iran on the steps necessary to restore mutual compliance with the JCPOA, it is still possible — and necessary — for the Iranian and U.S. negotiators to reach a win-win arrangement that heads off a major nuclear crisis.” 

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