Talks on Iran’s nuclear program begin in Vienna

Negotiators began a new round of talks on Iran’s nuclear program in Vienna on Thursday, seeking to salvage a deal on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Officials from world powers and Iran met in the Austrian capital for the first time since March, when negotiations, which began in 2021 to reintegrate the United States into the agreement, stalled.

In late June, Qatar hosted indirect talks between Tehran and Washington in the hope of getting the process back on track – but those talks failed to produce a breakthrough.

In a last-ditch effort, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, put forward a compromise proposal last month and called on the parties to accept it to avoid a “serious nuclear crisis”.

Borrell said the draft text contained “hard-earned concessions by all parties” and “deal, in fine detail, with the lifting of sanctions as well as the nuclear steps needed to restore” the 2015 agreement.

Bilateral talks began on Thursday at the luxury Palais Coburg hotel in Vienna under the auspices of European Union Representative Enrique Mora.

The Iranian and Russian delegations, who have traditionally been close to negotiations, held a separate meeting.

Britain, China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia and the United States signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in July 2015. Delegates from all will participate in talks on Thursday, but officials from the United States and Iran are not expected to meet face to face.

The JCPOA aims to guarantee the civilian nature of Iran’s nuclear program in return for a gradual lifting of sanctions.

But following the unilateral withdrawal of the United States in 2018 under former President Donald Trump and the re-imposition of US sanctions, Tehran has reneged on its commitments.

After that, Iran exceeded its JCPOA uranium enrichment rate of 3.67 percent, rising to 20 percent in early 2021.

Then it crossed the unprecedented 60 percent threshold, approaching the 90 percent needed to make a bomb.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, warned on Tuesday that Iran’s program was “moving forward too quickly” and “growing in ambition and capacity.”

– Cautious optimism –

Ahead of Thursday’s talks, officials expressed cautious optimism, warning all along that the parties remain far apart on key issues.

These include sanctions, Iranian demands for guarantees, and an end to an investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency.

The head of the US delegation, Rob Malley, and the chief representative of Tehran, Ali Bagheri, said on Twitter before the talks that they were coming in good faith but blaming each other.

Meanwhile, analysts said reviving the JCPOA remains the best option.

“The last thing the United States needs is a nuclear crisis with Iran that could easily escalate into a broader regional conflict,” Susan DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a statement.

“Ultimately, Tehran and Washington know that the alternatives to the collapse of the JCPOA are dire,” said Elie Geranmayeh, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

“It is unlikely that this will be a meeting that will resolve the outstanding issues” but it “could make the necessary breakthrough to push the talks toward the finish line rather than break down,” she said.

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