image Photo: Reuters

EU, Russia: Iran nuclear deal within reach

The European Union official charged with leading talks to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran has expressed confidence that agreement will soon be reached.

“I am quite sure that there will be a final agreement. … I think we are on the right track and we will get an agreement,” said Enrique Mora, who is the Chief of Staff of for the EU’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana.

Mora made his statements to reporters at the end of a fourth round of negotiations of indirect talks between Iran and the United States in Vienna. He added that there is a common understanding on what is needed for a US return to the deal, the lifting of related sanctions and the resumption of nuclear commitments by Iran.

Russia’s Envoy to the Vienna Talks as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mikhail Ulyanov echoed Mora’s assessment. He wrote on Twitter yesterday that a deal is “within reach” after the achievement of good progress, and expressed hope that the fifth round expected to begin next week will be the final one.

US State Department Spokeswoman Jalina Porter said the talks had “really helped to crystallize towards the steps that need to be made by Iran as well as by the United States.” She added that lead American negotiator Rob Malley will fly home this week and that the delegation will return to Austria “earlier next week.”

“It can be said now that the framework and structure of the agreement has been defined and many clauses of the agreement are being negotiated,” Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, told Iranian state TV.

European allies of the US, along with Russia and China, have been working since 6 April to bring both the Washington and Tehran back into compliance with the JCPOA. Former US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement in May 2018 and re-imposed stiff sanctions on the Islamic Republic that had been lifted under the deal, after which Iran openly began breaching nuclear curbs set by the agreement.

The last round talks resumed in Vienna on 7 May. Since Iran refused to hold direct talks with the US, the remaining JCPOA parties – Iran, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – have been holding negotiations in the basement of a luxury hotel while the American delegation is based at another hotel across the street.

The crux of the original agreement, that was also reached in Vienna in 2015, was Iran’s commitment to rein in its nuclear program to make it harder to obtain the fissile material for a nuclear weapon in return for relief from US, EU and United Nations sanctions.

The Trump administration and Israel have long accused Iran of covertly violating the accord in pursuit of atomic bombs and ballistic missile development, while also engaging in malign regional behavior through the funding and arming of its terrorist proxies – such as Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Any new deal with Iran, says Israel, must mandate a wider scope and greater enforcement.

Jerusalem has never believed the agreement was stringent enough to block Tehran’s quest of acquiring atomic weapons capability.

The administration of President Joe Biden has indicated willingness to renegotiate the JCPOA, once it has returned to compliance with nuclear limitations it has openly breached since the US reversal. The Ayatollah regime has declared it will only adhere to nuclear curbs after sanctions re-imposed by Trump have been lifted.

Washington maintains that Jerusalem has received advance notification of any prospective dialogue with Iran; while Israeli officials suggest they have secured a behind-the-scenes conversation with the Biden White House in which their concerns are being heard.

Israeli Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz insisted in March that any new nuclear deal between the West and Iran should be “dramatically improved” from the previous agreement. As part of his responsibilities as Energy chief, Steinitz is also in charge of Israel Atomic Energy Commission and a member of the Security Cabinet.

An eventual new pact with the West over Iran’s nuclear program “should be dramatically improved,” he stressed, explaining that the “previous agreement is far from being sufficient” and that the Ayatollah leaders of the Islamic Republic are guilty of “violating all their commitments.”

Meanwhile, other European diplomats are sounding a note of caution over reaching a new deal with Iran by stressing that success is not guaranteed.

Senior diplomats from Britain, France and Germany (known as the E3) issued a joint statement yesterday acknowledging that there has been some tangible progress and emergence of an outline of a final deal, but that, “There are still some very difficult issues ahead. We do not underestimate the challenges that lay before us.”

After holding a meeting with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Zavad Zarif in Dublin, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney also cited progress, but added: “A deal is far from done though because this is a big technical negotiation.”

Officials are hoping to reach agreement before Iran’s presidential election in mid-June out of concern the campaign could affect the outcome of the Vienna talks.

There is a more pressing ‘soft deadline’ tomorrow upon expiration of Tehran’s temporary agreement with IAEA on the monitoring of some of its nuclear activities.

The E3 diplomats stressed in their statement that it is vital that Iran and the UN atomic watchdog agency find a way to ensure the continuity of inspection. “IAEA access will of course be essential to our efforts to restore the JCPOA – as a deal cannot be implemented without it,” said the British, French and German statement.

Following Iran’s 21 February declaration it would immediately halt IAEA snap inspections, the organization’s Director General Rafael Grossi was able to secure an arrangement for “necessary” monitoring for up to three months. Tehran nevertheless confirmed it would go ahead with its plan to slash other cooperation with the agency.

Had it not been for an urgent flight to Tehran to reach the temporary deal, Grossi said, “the situation would not, I repeat, would not be reversible or recoverable. We would be basically flying blind, without any idea of what would be taking place in terms of enrichment activities and other relevant activities.”

Details of the deal are confidential but Grossi described it as a black box-type system in which data is collected that can only be accessed by the IAEA later.

“This is a system that allows us to continue to monitor and to register all the key activities that are taking place throughout this period so that at the end of it we can recover all this information,” the IAEA Director General said at a US Nuclear Threat Initiative think-tank event.

“In other words, we will know exactly what happened, exactly how many components were fabricated, exactly how much material was processed or treated or enriched and so on and so forth.”

This system does not apply to the core monitoring of Iran’s most important declared facilities such as its enrichment sites – which predate the JCPOA, however, a senior diplomat told Reuters, and applicable only to measures added under the deal including the measurement of enriched uranium in real time.

Grossi expressed hope in February that a new monitoring deal with Iran would be forged at a higher level while his technical accord is in place – an apparent reference to efforts to salvage the 2015 nuclear pact.

“Some say at the end of it, if Iran wants (to) and there is no agreement, they will destroy this information. Yes, but if at the end of it there is no agreement – everything is destroyed. There is no confidence anymore,” Grossi said.