Nuclear talks in doubt amid new Iranian demands

VIENNA — The mood was somber Friday as negotiators left Palais Coburg in Vienna, with diplomats wondering if the months of talks trying to revive the Iran nuclear deal would soon be over for good. 

Western diplomats said Iran had put forth new proposals during the week of talks that left almost no basis for further conversations about returning to the agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Negotiators had reconvened this week for a seventh round of talks, but the first since hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi took over as Iranian president in August. 

It was, the western diplomats said, as if the six previous rounds of talks hadn’t even happened. 

“Tehran is walking back almost all of the difficult compromises crafted after many months of hard work, and demands major changes to the text,” senior European diplomats from Britain, France and Germany said after the talks broke up on Friday. 

The remarks leave the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), hanging by an ever-more tenuous thread. While Iran had been increasingly moving away from the agreement since former U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out in 2018, there had been hope that his successor, President Joe Biden, would find a way back into the accord. The rounds of talks earlier this year at times bolstered that hope, as the two sides sent cautiously optimistic signals. 

But those aspirations now appear increasingly far-fetched. 

“Some proposals by Iran are inconsistent with the JCPOA, others go beyond the provisions of the JCPOA,” the European diplomats said.

“What we’ve seen in the last couple of days is that Iran right now does not seem to be serious about doing what’s necessary to return to compliance, which is why we ended this round of talks in Vienna,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

“We’re going to be consulting very closely and carefully with all of our partners in the process itself … and we will see if Iran has any interest in engaging seriously,” he said.

Iran’s chief negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, quickly left the venue without saying a word, making use of a moment that saw the waiting media distracted as China’s chief negotiator addressed them. 

A small group of protesters, located a few hundred meters away from the venue, added to the tense atmosphere, chanting: “Regime change in Iran, Mullahs out of Iran,” holding up banners that read “stop negotiating with the Islamic terrorist regime.”

Dimming prospects

During the six rounds of negotiations between April and June under the previous Iranian government, the U.S. had put forward a comprehensive proposal for the lifting of economic sanctions against Iranian institutions and certain Iranian individuals.

Negotiators also worked out ways to restrict Iran’s nuclear program in return, including detailed proposals on how to get rid of Iran’s excess uranium stockpile and many advanced centrifuges, machines used to enrich uranium.

But during this latest round of talks, Tehran demanded sweeping changes to those texts — demands European negotiators considered unrealistic. 

Western officials also said China and Russia, also part of the original deal and usually more understanding of the Iranian position, supported the European viewpoint.

One diplomat familiar with the negotiations told POLITICO Iran had demanded changes and deletions to parts of the text that had been agreed upon during previous rounds, as well as parts of the text that was still under negotiation. 

“By changing almost the entire text on the nuclear file, Iran completely changed the approach we had taken during previous rounds of talks, where we had worked out detailed technical steps on how to restrict Iran’s nuclear program and bring Tehran back into compliance with the JCPOA,” the diplomat said. 

The diplomat added that the new Iranian negotiating team seemed focused on just repeating dogmatic positions rather than putting forward compromises.

As a result, negotiators are now certain Iran is not ready to resume negotiations where they had left off in June. It is also clear Iran similarly stuck to its maximalist demands behind closed doors.

Iran had publicly insisted in the weeks prior to the resumption of talks that its main goal in the talks was the removal of all U.S. sanctions, including those imposed by Trump and those unrelated to Tehran’s nuclear activities, in a “verifiable manner.”

Iran has argued the Americans are to blame for the 2015 agreement falling apart, as Washington unilaterally withdrew from the deal and reimposed sweeping economic sanctions. 

“As in any business, a deal is a deal, and breaking it has consequences,” Bagheri Kani wrote in a recent Financial Times op-ed.

Bagheri Kani, speaking Friday to Iranian media at the Vienna airport after leaving the talks, said, “it’s true that European parties were not very satisfied with some of our proposals, but these proposals were based on common principles between the two sides.”

But European and U.S. officials have been warning for a while that time was running out for a revival of the nuclear deal, given Iran’s significant nuclear advances that are eroding the benefits of the deal.

This most recent round of talks only made those warnings more urgent, with Iran taking additional nuclear steps as negotiations were ongoing.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Wednesday reported Iran had started producing 20 percent enriched uranium, using advanced centrifuges for the first time at the Fordow nuclear plant, which is built inside a mountain to withstand bombardment.

“This is going to increase Iran’s uranium stockpile at a faster rate and will continue to erode the time it will take Iran to produce enough material for a nuclear weapon,” Eric Brewer, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told POLITICO.

While Iran may have calculated that its nuclear advances will give it more leverage at the negotiating table, western officials now say the nuclear escalation means there is no time left to negotiate the many new Iranian demands. In the western reasoning, the combination of Iran’s nuclear advancements and maximalist demands makes a way forward impossible. They say Iran needs to change course for negotiations to succeed.

“We have identified the challenges ahead. Now it is time to consult with capitals,” Enrique Mora, the senior EU official coordinating the talks, told reporters outside Palais Coburg after the conclusion of talks. “We will be resuming here in Vienna next week.”



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