VIENNA — It took five months for the Iran nuclear talks to resume. They may already be in trouble.
Senior diplomats from Britain, France and Germany are warning that the resurrected negotiations over getting the U.S. and Iran back into an agreement to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief are facing a make-or-break moment. At issue is a media report from Axios saying Israel is warning others that Iran is moving to possibly create weapons-grade uranium.
If true, said the diplomats from the so-called E3 countries, the talks could collapse.
“It would seriously imperil the process,” the diplomats told a group of reporters in Vienna on Tuesday. They added: “You cannot enrich to weapons grade and say that you are seeking a return to an agreement whose goal is to ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.”
True or not, the development highlights the progress Tehran has already made in building out its nuclear program, as well as its hardening negotiating stance following an election that brought hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi to power. And it underscores the pessimism many western diplomats already felt before heading back into Vienna.
“If they don’t show us that they are serious this week, then we have a problem,” the European diplomats said.
Still, Enrique Mora, the senior EU official coordinating the talks, has tried to remain upbeat.
“There is clearly a will of the Iranian delegation to engage in the serious work of bringing the JCPOA back to life,” he told reporters Monday, using the acronym for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear agreement’s official name.
Back at it
Negotiators from Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and the U.S. returned to Vienna this week to resume talks over reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which has become nearly extinct since former U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out in 2018.
Despite frigid and stormy weather and few diversions, given a COVID-19 lockdown keeping shops and even Vienna’s famous Christmas markets closed, diplomats were relieved to finally be back at the table.
Iran said it needed the five-month break to clarify its negotiating position after Raisi assumed the presidency. But Tehran also used the time to take additional steps to increase its nuclear program by further enriching uranium and adding more advanced centrifuges — machines used to enrich uranium. This week, the media report causing a stir claims Israel has shared intelligence information with the U.S. and European countries about Iran closing in on the ability to enrich uranium at the weapons-grade 90 percent level.
Still, Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful.
For its return to Tehran, Iran brought an unusually large delegation of 40 people, an apparent attempt to demonstrate its seriousness in the talks — particularly when it comes to the issue of the removal of Western sanctions. Among the delegation was not only chief negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani, but also the deputy foreign ministers for economic affairs and for legal affairs, the deputy governor of the central bank, the deputy economy minister, as well as the deputy oil minister.
Regardless, the E3 diplomats said they still did not know exactly how much of the draft texts that had been negotiated during the past six rounds of talks in Vienna Iran would now accept.
Under the original agreement, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for economic sanctions relief. Negotiators in Vienna are attempting to restore this original bargain of the accord by agreeing on a sequenced step-by-step plan that would bring the U.S. and Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA.
During prior intensive deliberations, negotiators had drafted a master document with political commitments, as well as three annexes on lifting sanctions, nuclear constraints and the sequencing of the steps the U.S. and Iran would each have to take.
Negotiators estimated that roughly 70 to 80 percent of the agreement was complete, with the remaining 20 to 30 percent containing the most difficult questions, such as what to do about Iran’s many advanced centrifuges.
Bagheri Kani, Iran’s new top nuclear negotiator, said on Tuesday that “all the issues concluded in the past six rounds can be negotiated.” He added: “What we have from the past six rounds is a draft and not an agreement. And a draft is subject to negotiation.”
One reason the detailed work of drafting texts may become more complicated now: Bagheri Kani speaks through a translator, unlike his predecessor Abbas Araghchi, who was fluent in English.
What’s Plan B?
It is still unclear what each country plans to do if Iran shows no serious interest in engaging in diplomacy — or builds a nuclear bomb.
The U.S. has not excluded a military response, while the Europeans would most likely try to maintain unity, including with Russia and China, and increase political pressure on Tehran.
After a formal meeting on Monday of the Joint Commission, the body responsible for overseeing the implementation of the nuclear agreement, diplomats broke into working groups that will look in detail at sanctions removal and constraining Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran is still not directly negotiating with the U.S., instead relying on European diplomats to deliver oral and written messages to Washington’s delegation, led by U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley. The American team is located in a separate hotel close to Palais Coburg, where the main talks are taking place.
“This will be the essential moment where we expect that after so many months of preparation, the Iranian side will come with concrete suggestions and proposals,” the senior European diplomats said.
It is not clear how long this round of talks will last, but some expect it to stretch at least until Friday. “We have brought big suitcases with us and we can continue as long as necessary,” one senior European diplomat joked.
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