Nuclear talks are progressing, Iran and U.S. say, despite Tehran’s enrichment threats

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reviews Iran’s new nuclear achievements during Iran’s National Nuclear Energy Day in Tehran, Iran April 10, 2021.

Iranian Presidency Office | WANA | via Reuters

Talks on the Iranian nuclear deal in Vienna hit more positive notes on Monday, officials said, as Tehran and Washington continue indirect negotiations in the hope of reviving the 2015 accord that lifted economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs to its nuclear program. 

“We are on the right track and some progress has been made, but this does not mean that the talks in Vienna have reached the final stage,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told a news conference in Tehran.

Iran boosting uranium enrichment

U.S. officials say there has been no breakthrough, but have described the indirect discussions as “thorough” and “thoughtful.” Reports say diplomats may even draft an interim deal that would give all sides more time to resolve some of the more complicated technical issues.

Negotiations are starting to pick up pace, even as Iran announces further violations of the deal — most significantly its pledge last week to begin enriching uranium to 60% purity, which would bring the fissile material closer to levels required for a bomb. Uranium enrichment needs to be at 90% in order to make a bomb — the limit under the 2015 deal was 3.67%.

The move are “violations Iran is trying to turn into leverage at the negotiations in Vienna,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told CNBC. While this move is aimed at strengthening Tehran’s hand, it could also backfire, analysts warn.

Iran on April 10 launched advanced centrifuges for enriching uranium to mark its national “Nuclear Day” while its President Hassan Rouhani reiterated the country’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation. The conflicting messages on state television were followed by an explosion at Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility just one day later — which Tehran has called an “act of nuclear terrorism” and blamed on Israel. Israel publicly declined to confirm or deny any responsibility.

“I think this will definitely drag out, you’re likely to see the cyber war heat up between these two countries in the next few months and we’re likely to see more talk of talking in the next few months,” Ben Taleblu said.

“And in the meantime, while there are more cyberattacks and more talking, you can almost guarantee that sites like Natanz will be doing everything they can to continue producing.” 

Still, all parties continue to seek a U.S. return to the deal that the former Trump administration abandoned in 2018, after which it imposed crippling sanctions on Iran’s economy. The U.S. also wants to see Iran return to full compliance before it lifts sanctions, something that gets trickier with each new enrichment push by Tehran.

Throughout the talks Iranian officials have essentially taken a hardline approach — they want Washington to lift all sanctions before it returns to compliance. The Biden team has expressed willingness to remove all sanctions that are inconsistent with the accord, but it hasn’t exactly spelled out what that means yet. 

Officials on all sides have described a mutual desire to move toward simultaneous and sequential steps to get this deal over the line. But at this point, there is still significantly more work to be done. 

At same time, the International Atomic Energy Agency has started separate talks with Iran on uranium traces that the agency found at undeclared locations in the country. The agency wants to understand where the traces came from and ensure that Iran is not diverting the material to make a nuclear weapon, which would mark a major blow to the apparent progress of the talks so far. Iran is insisting that that is not the case.

The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said Monday, “I think that both parties are really interested in reaching an agreement, and they have been moving from general to more focused issues, which are clearly, on one side sanction-lifting, and on the other side, nuclear implementation issues.”

“The U.S. rejoining the JCPOA and a return to the full implementation of the deal would make the world much safer,” Borrell said.

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