VIENNA – The setting was right, but the atmosphere chilly. After a break of more than five months, talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal resumed Monday in the Palais Coburg — the luxury hotel in Vienna where the original pact was signed with much fanfare, in a more optimistic time.
With a more conservative government now in place in Iran, and a new set of Iranian negotiators who have said talks need to start with a complete lifting of sanctions, the mood was somber among Western negotiators. But as the first round of formal discussions ended Monday, they tried to be upbeat.
Enrique Mora of the European Union, who is presiding over the talks, said Iran "recognizes the work done in the past six rounds and the fact that we will be building on that.” But he said that Iran was "insisting on sanctions lifting” immediately, which is likely to be unacceptable to Washington.
Iran is also insisting that the United States and its allies promise never to impose sanctions on Iran again, the country’s chief negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, a deputy foreign minister, told reporters after the talks.
According to a senior European official, who requested anonymity, the Iranian negotiator also said during meetings that Iran would further escalate its nuclear program if those demands were not met.
But in an important step to keep the negotiations alive, Iran agreed to resume talks Tuesday in one of three working groups established in earlier rounds — on which sanctions would eventually be lifted by the United States. The other two working groups, on the nuclear issue itself and on the implementation and sequencing of each country’s actions in the event of a new deal, will not resume talks Tuesday.
Mora said the nuclear working group would meet Wednesday. "There is a sense of urgency” to restore the nuclear deal, he said, but "there is no fixed timeline in my mind."
The Europeans had felt significant progress was made in all three working groups in the earlier talks — although awkwardly, since Iran refuses to talk directly to the American envoy, Robert Malley, and will do so only through the existing signatories — France, the U.K., Germany, China, Russia and Mora.
The Biden administration has said it wants to return to the original nuclear deal with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which former President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018 calling it "the worst deal in history.”
The new Iranian government seems to want the same, with Bagheri Kani repeating in an opinion article in the Financial Times his view that the very term "nuclear negotiations” is itself "rife with error.”
Iran’s first goal, he wrote, is "to gain a full, guaranteed and verifiable removal of the sanctions that have been imposed on the Iranian people.” The talks, he said earlier this month, are "negotiations to remove unlawful and inhuman sanctions,” a theme also struck Monday in an article in the Iranian press by Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian.
To underscore that emphasis on lifting the punishing economic sanctions, Bagheri Kani brought to Vienna a delegation that includes deputy foreign ministers for economic and legal affairs, the deputy governor of the central bank and its former chief, the deputy economy and oil ministers and the economic adviser to Iran’s vice president.
After days of informal discussions where the essential talking is done, the full plenary meeting began more than an hour later than scheduled when Bagheri Kani finally entered the room. He spoke only of how all sanctions must be lifted by "the aggressor,” the United States, and gave homage to the "martyrdom” of Iranian scientists killed in covert attacks largely carried out by Israel.
The situation on the ground in Iran has changed in the past five months, since the last round of talks ended, making this week’s discussions more difficult.
Iran kept to the deal for a year after Washington withdrew, but since then its nuclear program has advanced significantly, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog. It has built modern centrifuges banned under the deal and breached enrichment limits. It is also much closer to having enough highly enriched uranium to make a bomb (even if creating a weapon — which Iran always denies wanting to do — would be perhaps two years away).
Iran has also adjusted to the current harsh sanctions regime, aided by sales of oil to China and Russia — two countries that opposed the American withdrawal from the deal in 2018 and whose relations with Washington have hardly improved over time.
Iran has also tried to create pressure on Washington by reneging on an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to restore its access to inspect Iranian nuclear sites and recover recordings from those sites. The worry is that the agency, and thus the world, will soon be blind to what Iran is actually doing in its nuclear program.
Even so, the agency's board of governors has not voted on a censure resolution against Iran, largely because China and Russia oppose it.
The United States has ruled out any unilateral lifting of sanctions before Iran itself moves back into compliance and has rejected Iran’s demand for a guarantee that Washington will never again abandon the deal, calling it unrealistic.
The spokesperson for Iran’s foreign ministry, Saeed Khatibzadeh, sounded positive Monday while putting the onus on the United States. "The delegation of the Islamic Republic of Iran is in Vienna with a firm determination to reach an agreement and is looking forward to fruitful talks,” he said in Tehran. "The government has shown its willingness and seriousness by sending a quality team known to all. If the other side shows the same willingness, we will be on the right track to reach an agreement.”
But Malley, the U.S. envoy, has regularly said, as he did to the BBC over the weekend, that "if Iran thinks it can use this time to build more leverage and then come back and say they want something better, it simply won’t work. We and our partners won’t go for it.”
Still, no one expects the talks to permanently end — which would confront the United States and Israel with tougher choices, since both countries vow that Iran will never get a nuclear weapon.
Israel, which fiercely opposed the 2015 deal, does not want Washington and the Europeans to relent on Iran or prepare a compromise or temporary arrangements. Israel says it will continue to try to sabotage, delay or destroy Iran’s nuclear program, even as American officials believe such efforts are ultimately counterproductive.
There is a growing view that Iran’s increased nuclear knowledge cannot be extinguished, and that the country may want to attain the ability to produce a bomb in short order if it chooses to do so — to become more of a nuclear threshold state, with important geopolitical ramifications in the Middle East.
"The stakes are high, and there are no reliable guardrails in place," said Suzanne DiMaggio, who studies Iran and nonproliferation for the Quincy Institute and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"Restarting the talks in Vienna is an opportunity to move away from maximum pressure to a diplomatic off-ramp, and de-escalate tensions," she said. "But all signs point to a rocky road ahead.”
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