image Photo: Reuters

US, Iran hold indirect talks on reviving nuclear deal

The start of indirect talks between the United States and Iran aimed at renewing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement have been described by all participants as “constructive.”

The same six world parties who forged the original pact in Vienna in 2015 have returned to the Austrian capital to join the current effort. Intermediaries from the United Kingdom, France and Germany adopted a shuttle-diplomacy approach to bring both the US and Iran into full compliance with the pact, while Russia and China were also present.

Former US President Donald Trump abandoned the JCPOA in 2018 and re-imposed crippling sanctions on the Islamic Republic, which responded by openly breaching limits set on its nuclear program.

The administration of current President Joe Biden has expressed intent to renegotiate a “longer and stronger agreement” that would deal with additional issues such as Iran’s long-term nuclear development, ballistic missile program and support of terrorist proxy forces across the Middle East.

The Ayatollah regime has repeatedly rejected Washington’s call, insisting all punitive economic measures must first be lifted as a first step.

Nevertheless, “These discussions in Vienna, even though we are not meeting directly with the Iranians, as we have said, it is a welcome step, it is a constructive step, it is a potentially useful step as we seek to determine what it is that the Iranians are prepared to do to return to compliance… and, as a result, what we might need to do to return to compliance ourselves,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price told reporters at his daily briefing in Washington even as he repeated the US expectation that the indirect talks would be “difficult.

White House Spokesperson Jen Psaki said the Biden administration is not anticipating any changes on Iran policy amid the negotiations.

“The talks in Vienna were constructive,” Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi told Iranian state television, confirming that, “our next meeting will be on Friday.”

All parties with the exception of the US participated in a group called the Joint Commission, chaired by the European Union.

“Constructive Joint Commission meeting. There’s unity and ambition for a joint diplomatic process with two expert groups on nuclear implementation and sanctions lifting,” said EU chief coordinator Enrique Mora later wrote on Twitter.

Two expert-level working groups, tasked with delineating certain sanctions Washington might be willing to remove in exchange for observance of some nuclear curbs by Tehran, will report back on Friday when the Joint Commission is slated to next reconvene.

None of the sides expects any early breakthroughs at the 2021 Vienna talks, and both Iranian and US officials have said there is no rush.  A European Union source revealed that the goal is to reach some type of a framework prior to Iran’s presidential election in June.

After a lengthy preparatory meeting said to have lasted for 6 hours, Russia’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mikhail Ulyanov tweeted: “The restoration of #JCPOA will not happen immediately. It will take some time. How long? Nobody knows. The most important thing after today’s meeting of the Joint Commission is that practical work towards achieving this goal has started.”

Neither US nor Iranian officials expressed optimism over a breakthrough at Vienna ahead of the talks.

The US delegation is headed by Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley and sanctions expert Richard Nephew.  Malley told NPR radio that the Trump Administration’s so-called “maximum pressure campaign” of withdrawal from the JCPOA in an attempt to force “Iran to surrender” led the US to the current situation where “we’re worse off vis-a-vis Iran, both on the nuclear front, where Iran has expanded its program, and on the regional front, where they have become more aggressive.”

Malley explained that “It’s going to be a difficult, arduous path because of how much time has gone by and how much mutual distrust there is  – but our goal is to discuss indirectly with our European and other partners who have internal discussions with Iran to see whether we could define those steps that both sides are going to have to take,” adding “Let’s see if we could reach an understanding with Iran about what that means.”

Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani stressed on Twitter that, “Regardless of whether Europe has the will or ability to persuade #USA to lift all sanctions at once & Washington’s return to its commitments, there will be no possibility for Iran entering talks in the new fields, more than JCPOA, under any circumstances.”

Iran’s Envoy to the United Nations and former nuclear negotiator Majid Takht-Ravanchi clearly placed the onus on his nation’s arch-foe. “The US has so far failed to honor @POTUS campaign promise to rejoin the JCPOA. So this opportunity shouldn’t be wasted,” he said on Twitter. “If US lifts all sanctions, Iran will then cease all remedial measures.”

“We are not optimistic nor pessimistic about the outcome of this meeting now, but we are confident that we are on the right track, and if America’s will, seriousness and honesty is proven, it could be a good sign for a better future for this agreement and ultimately its full implementation,” Iranian Government Spokesman Ali Rabiei told reporters.

Adding fresh doubt to chances of a breakthrough, an Iranian official told Reuters: “Our agenda during the meeting will be removal of all US sanctions against Iran … as our Supreme Leader has said repeatedly, anything less than that will not be accepted by Tehran.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, has opposed any gradual easing of sanctions.

Meanwhile in related developments, an Iranian cargo ship has reportedly been targeted by a limpet mine in the Red Sea.

Al Arabiya TV cited unnamed sources who said the vessel is affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and came under attack off Eritrea. Iran‘s Tanzim news agency identified the ship as the Saviz, reporting that it had been deployed to the Red Sea in recent years to “support Iranian commandos sent on commercial vessel (anti-piracy) escort missions.”

A US Naval Institute report in October 2020 identified the Saviz as a covert IRGC military ship. 

Israel reportedly notified Washington that it had struck the Saviz in “retaliation for earlier Iranian strikes on Israeli vessels” and that the ship sustained damage “below the water line,” according to an unnamed US official speaking to the New York Times. The source added that the attack had been delayed “to allow the Dwight D. Eisenhower, an American aircraft carrier in the area, to put some distance between itself and the Saviz.”

The Eisenhower was about 320 kilometers (200 miles) away when the Saviz was hit, said the official.
Israeli officials have declined to comment on the incident.