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Diplomats see progress on Iran nuclear talks

Major powers completed a third round of talks in Vienna amid "cautious and growing optimism," seeking ways to resuscitate the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal.

Delegates to the Iran nuclear talks
Delegates to the Iran nuclear talks (AN/E.U. Delegation Vienna)

VIENNA (AN) — Major powers completed a third round of talks amid what one participant called "cautious and growing optimism," seeking ways to resuscitate the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal by bringing the United States back into the landmark agreement and restoring Tehran's compliance.

The talks on Saturday brought together representatives of all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — along with Germany and the European Union.

All were signatories to the deal with Iran known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, that imposed enforceable curbs on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for lifting U.N.-authorized sanctions on Iran.

But the United States withdrew from it in 2018, reimposing and adding U.S. sanctions, under former President Donald Trump's adminstration. Iran then fell out of compliance, increasing its stockpiles of enriched uranium and decreasing U.N. inspectors’ access to nuclear sites, in a bid to pressure Europe to compensate for the economic damage caused by U.S. sanctions.

Biden has pledged to return to the deal if Iran resumes compliance; Iran believes the U.S., after reneging on the deal, should make the first move.

Russia’s envoy to international organizations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, said the purpose of the talks had been to bring together political directors from all of the nations that remain in the deal so they could "take stock" of where things stood.

Their discussions represented the latest round of high-level talks and meetings of expert working groups that began at Vienna — headquarters of the U.N.'s watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA — in early April.

"The JCPOA participants noted today the indisputable progress made at the Vienna talks on restoration of the nuclear deal," he said on Twitter, adding that a fourth round would be held at the end of the next week. "In the meantime, experts will continue to draft elements of future agreement."

'Cautious and growing optimism'

And, in comments echoing those of a top-ranking U.S. administration official a day earlier, Ulyanov said it was unclear exactly where the negotations might be headed next. He noted that Iranian diplomats were "still not ready" to meet directly with their American counterparts. Still, he raised expectations for possibly bringing things to a conclusion by the end of May.

"At which stage the Vienna talks on JCPOA restoration are?" he asked. "It’s too early to be excited, but we have reasons for cautious and growing optimism. There is no deadline, but participants aim at successful completion of the talks in approximately three weeks. Is it realistic? We will see."

On Friday, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the indirect negotiations between the United States and Iran were in "a sort of unclear place" that defied characterization.

"We've seen willingness of all sides, including the Iranians, to talk seriously about sanctions relief and nuclear restrictions, and a pathway back into the JCPOA," he told an Aspen Institute forum reviewing the first 100 days of U.S. President Joe Biden's administration. "But it is still uncertain as to whether this will culminate in a deal in Vienna in the coming weeks."

Iran is fast increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium and, under orders from its parliament, is no longer fully cooperating with IAEA, which had been sealing up Iran’s nuclear material and equipment and using surveillance cameras to analyze hundreds of thousands of images from Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The talks have been further complicated by an attack on Iran's Natanz nuclear site that Israel is suspected of carrying out and by the controversy in Tehran over Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif's recorded comments to a think tank that were leaked to the public.

Zarif, who helped to negotiate the JCPOA, criticized the popular late Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2020, and described Russia as opposing the nuclear deal despite ultimately signing on.

After the second round of talks, a senior U.S. State Department official told a news briefing in April that the United States and Iran each had a better idea of what they must do to "come back into compliance with the JCPOA. ... And the distance that remains to be traveled is greater than the distance that we’ve traveled so far."