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Vienna: Iran nuclear talks raise hopes of return to compliance

Analysts say Monday's initial talks showed positive signs, however, negotiations are likely to continue as all parties work out their differences
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani arrives at the Coburg Palais, the venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) meeting, in Vienna on 29 November 2021 (AFP)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

Iran and world powers restarted nuclear talks on Monday following a months-long pause, and officials raised hopes that all sides could return to the 2015 agreement.

However, analysts have said that despite the enthusiasm, it could still take time for Tehran and Washington to work out their differences.

After meeting in the Austrian capital of Vienna, European Union, Iranian and Russian delegates expressed optimism at the seventh round of negotiations, which were conducted without the United States. Tehran refuses to meet directly with Washington.

"I feel extremely positive about what I have seen today," Enrique Mora, the EU official chairing the talks, told reporters after the meeting, as quoted by Reuters.

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Mora said the new Iranian delegation had stuck to its demand that all sanctions be lifted but acknowledged the progress made during the previous six rounds of negotiations held earlier this year.

"They have accepted that the work done over the first six rounds is a good basis to build our work ahead," he said. "We will be of course incorporating the new political sensibilities of the new Iranian administration."

Iran and the US conducted six rounds of indirect negotiations over a return to the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), between April and June, before taking a pause due to Iran's presidential elections.

Biden's administration has been seeking a return to the accord - in which Iran limited its disputed uranium enrichment programme in return for sanctions relief - that his predecessor Donald Trump left in 2018. After departing from the deal, the Trump administration re-imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Iran.

"The initial signs coming out of Vienna after the Joint Commission meeting ended today are positive. The very low bar that many people had going into these talks has now been significantly surpassed," Sina Toossi, a senior research analyst at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), told Middle East Eye.

"I don't think there's going to be a breakthrough anytime soon," Toossi added. "I think the Iranians are going to make the US sweat."

Naysan Rafati, the Crisis Group's senior Iran analyst, told MEE that "there is still a potential for reviving the agreements" but it largely depends on how much each side is willing to concede.

"I think that in part it'll depend on what the US is willing to put on the table in the form of sanctions relief, and what the Iranians accept to bring their nuclear programme back into the parameters of the 2015 agreement," he said.

'The ball is in US field'

One of the major issues on the table during the negotiations was the US sanctions placed on Iran. Tehran has consistently demanded the removal of all these sanctions, including those unrelated to its nuclear programme.

Washington, however, has previously said that it can only lift those sanctions that are inconsistent with the nuclear deal and that other sanctions would have to remain in place.

The Islamic Republic's top negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, said on Monday that all parties in Vienna agreed to first address sanctions before going on to talk about the terms of the nuclear agreement. 

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Discussions on the issue of sanctions will take place on Tuesday, while discussions on Iran's nuclear programme will take place on Wednesday.

"It is a major achievement that all parties in the meeting accepted Iran's demand that first the situation of illegal and unjust US sanctions...should be cleared and then (we) discuss other issues and decide on those issues," he told reporters.

Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a nuclear policy specialist at Princeton and former head of Iran's National Security Foreign Relations Committee, said that for Iran, returning to compliance is an easy move, considering they had been in compliance for three years, and that "the ball is in the field of the US".

"If the US can lift the sanctions and return to the status quo of the implementation of the JCPOA during the Obama period (2016), there is a good chance of returning to the deal," Mousavian told MEE.

Rafati noted that Iran's demand for the US to lift all sanctions is a "potential landmine", with many of the sanctions not dealing with the JCPOA or Iran's nuclear programme.

"If the Iranians believe that they can ask for a wholesale reversal of all of the 1500 or so sanctions the Trump administration put in place, that seems to be very high hurdle for the US to be able to meet," he said.

Iran's nuclear programme

As talks begin this week, Iran's nuclear compliance will be another main issue for Tehran to negotiate with other world powers.

Since the US, under former President Donald Trump, left the nuclear deal, Iran continued to abide by the pact until June 2019, when it announced that it would no longer be bound by the JCPOA's limits on heavy water and low-enriched uranium.

'The JCPOA is the only solution that in a durable way addresses the proliferation risks of [the] Iran nuclear programme'

- Sina Toossi, National Iranian American Council

Tehran has steadily increased its non-compliance with its nuclear obligations and earlier this year began to accelerate the enrichment of uranium to 60 percent fissile purity, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

A report by Axios on Monday said that Israeli intelligence shared with the US suggested Iran is taking steps to prepare to enrich uranium to 90 percent purity, a level that would be weapons-grade.

Iran has not commented on the report but has repeatedly insisted its nuclear aims are entirely peaceful and that it has no plans to pursue atomic weapons, but it is developing a new type of reactor fuel.

US officials have also been expressing concern in the weeks leading up to Monday, including saying that the Biden administration was looking at other options if talks with Iran fail.

Toossi noted that despite the report and continued concerns coming from the US, the best way forward was to return to the nuclear accord.

"It reinforces the need for the JCPOA. If one day Iran does decide to go to weapons-grade uranium, the only viable lasting solution to that problem is a diplomatic solution," he said.

"The JCPOA is the only solution that in a durable way addresses the proliferation risks of [the] Iran nuclear programme."

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