image Photo: Reuters

Progress reported at JCPOA talks

Iran and world powers have achieved some progress on strategies to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear accords in Vienna.

European-mediated indirect talks between the Islamic Republic and the United States have been taking place in Austria since early April in pursuit of a framework bring back Tehran and Washington into full compliance with the accord. Former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA and re-imposed stiff sanctions in 2018, after which Iran openly breached terms of the deal.

“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,” said Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh at a news conference in Tehran.

The High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell said he sees willingness to salvage the accord, saying, “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.”

A US State Department spokesman said American team “has been exploring concrete approaches concerning the steps both Iran and the US would need to take to return to mutual compliance.” He added that, “The discussions have been thorough and thoughtful, if indirect … There have been no breakthroughs, but we did not expect this process to be easy or quick,” explaining that the delegations are expected to return home for consultations at some point but he did not know when.

Russia’s Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mikhail Ulyanov wrote on Twitter that, “Practical solutions are still far away, but we have moved from general words to agreeing on specific steps towards the goal.”

The administration of US President Joe Biden has indicated willingness to rejoin a negotiated version and lift “all sanctions that are inconsistent” with the accord but has declined to provide additional details.

Tehran significantly ratcheted up tensions last week by enriching uranium to 60% purity at its main Natanz plant after a damaging blast there it has blamed on sabotage by Israel, which opposes diplomacy with Iran. The gap to producing 90% fissile purity needed for nuclear bomb production is considered narrow. Despite Iran’s repeated claims its nuclear development is for “purely peaceful purposes,” Israeli and Western intelligence services share belief with the IAEA that the Islamic Republic was operating a covert atom bomb program until 2003.

The JCPOA capped the level of enrichment purity at 3.67% – suitable for generating civilian nuclear energy.

The Ayatollah regime has been insistent that it will not return to strict observance of the 2015 agreement unless all US sanctions have been rescinded first.

Diplomats say sequenced steps by each side may resolve the impasse. One Iranian official told Reuters that the Vienna talks may be able to secure temporary agreement to add time for the reaching of a lasting settlement.

“The May deadline is approaching … What is being discussed in Vienna for the near term is the main outlines of an interim deal to give all sides more time to resolve complicated technical issues,” said an Iranian official, in reference to legislation obliging the clerical government to harden its nuclear stance if sanctions are not removed. The law passed by Iran’s hardline-dominated parliament mandated an end to short-notice IAEA inspections after 21 February, although the sides agreed to maintain “necessary” monitoring for up to 3 months.

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi disputed the prospect of a short-term arrangement with the US, telling state media “there is no discussion on an interim agreement or similar topics in the Vienna talks.”

Araqchi’s dismissal was countered by another Iranian official, who was cited by Reuters as saying that Tehran might suspend enrichment to 20% purity if a political agreement was reached on technical steps to remove all sanctions, in addition to the unfreezing of Iranian funds in other countries.

“Unblocking Iran’s funds is a good start,” said a second official, clarifying that, “An interim deal will give us time to work on removal of all sanctions.”

Tehran claims that $20 billion of its oil revenue has been frozen in South Korea, Iraq, China in compliance with Washington’s sanctions regime since 2018.

Meanwhile in related developments that could affect the outcome of efforts to revive the JCPOA, the IAEA began talks yesterday aimed at obtaining explanations from Tehran on the origin of uranium traces found at undeclared locations in the Islamic Republic.

Over the past two years, IAEA inspectors have found evidence of processed uranium at 3 locations Iran had never revealed.

“The IAEA and Iran began today to engage in a focused process aimed at clarifying outstanding safeguards issues,” the United Nations nuclear watchdog organization said in a statement, adding that the meeting was at the level of experts.

The first slated IAEA-Iran meeting on the matter had been set to take place in Tehran at the start of the month, but postponed due to the launching of the Vienna talks. The IAEA statement said yesterday’s talks were with Iranian officials – who are also involved in separate meetings on the nuclear deal – “at another location in the Austrian capital.”

Failure to make progress on explaining the uranium traces in the IAEA’s talks with Tehran could mean France, Britain and Germany would push for a resolution with US-support at the next IAEA board meeting in June.

The IAEA is responsible for tracking all uranium to ascertain it is not being diverted by Iran to produce nuclear weapons.

It is interesting to note that while Israel is seemingly concerned by the possibility of far-reaching concessions being made toward Iran at the Vienna talks, not all of the participants are susceptible to Islamic Republic’s tactics of negotiations, most notably France and the United Kingdom.

Western diplomats who asked to remain anonymous voiced frustration that while EU Foreign Policy Chief Borrell is expected to maintain impartiality in his official capacity as the talks’ coordinator, he “has not shied away from vocally and repeatedly laying the blame for Tehran’s aggressive behavior on the United States” while “utilizing all of the tools at his disposal to pressure the E3 and Washington to make far-reaching concessions beyond reason.”

Borrell’s “pro-Iranian bias,” as they put it, “was reflected” during Borrell’s briefing to the EU Foreign Affairs Council video conference yesterday.