By Erin Viner for TV7
“Let me make it absolutely clear: We just concluded Round 6. We will be resuming – or coming back for Round 7 sometime in the not-too-distant future – and we wouldn’t be doing that if the deal were already done,” stressed a senior US official during a teleconference with reporters, who were instructed not to name him. He said he made the statement due to recent “confusion” and that he wished to “address two issues that I think have caused some of that imprecision.”
Talks to revive the JCPOA have been ongoing in Vienna since early April, mediated by the pact’s remaining parties Russia, China, Germany, the United Kingdom, France and the European Union. The negotiations adjourned on Sunday, 2 days after the hardliner Ebrahim Raisi – who is subject to US sanctions – was elected to replace Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in August.
On Wednesday, Rouhani’s Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi declared that Washington had agreed to remove all sanctions on the Islamic Republic’s oil and shipping sectors. His remarks echoed previous assertions by officials in Rouhani’s pragmatist camp that Washington is ready to make major concessions.
The administration of US President Joe Biden wants to restore the pact’s nuclear limits and, if possible, extend them; which is in accordance with Israel’s insistence that any new deal must encompass a wider scope and greater enforcement.
As far as the current status of the Vienna Talks, the US official underscored during the Thursday conference call that, “We still have serious differences that have not been bridged, serious differences with Iran over the host of issues, whether it’s the nuclear steps that Iran needs to take to come back into compliance, the sanctions relief that the US will be offering, or the sequence of steps that both sides would be taking.”
“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” he emphasized, adding, “And since everything is not agreed, we still don’t have anything nailed down. And there’s still some very important issues that need to be resolved.”
But “by the same token, we wouldn’t be going back for a 7th Round if we didn’t think that a deal was possible,” said the senior official. “It remains possible. It remains our objective, but we’re not there yet, and I’m not going to speculate as to if or when we will get there,” he said.
The second major point the Biden administration official wished to make appeared to come in response to Tehran’s accusation on Tuesday that Washington had meddled in its 18 June presidential election, causing a record low turnout and high number of invalid “protest” ballots. This, following a statement by a State Department spokesman a day earlier, that the US viewed the process that made Raisi Iran’s President-Elect as “pretty manufactured” while reiterating Washington’s belief that the election was neither free nor fair.
“We consider this statement as interference in our domestic affairs, contrary to international law and reject it,” Iranian Government Spokesman Ali Rabiei was cited as saying by state media, and that Washington does not have the authority to express views on elections in other countries.
Doubling down on the US position, however, the senior official said yesterday that, “we’ve said already what we thought of the elections and of the new president, the fact that this was a pre-manufactured process that did not reflect the will of the Iranian people.”
“And we also have said what we thought about the background of the President-Elect,” he said about Raisi, who is alleged to be involved in extrajudicial killing of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in 1988.
Nevertheless, “that said, from our point of view, it does not affect our determination to try to reach a deal or the pace at which we will go about pursuing it. We’re not going to second guess any effect that it might have on Iranian decision making, but our goal is to pursue the objective that President Biden laid out both during the campaign and since, which is to try to address – diplomatically by – is our preference – our goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” said the US official.
After reiterating the White House conviction that “diplomacy” and “returning to the JCPOA” is the “best way” to stop Iran from making atomic bombs, he went on to say that “we’ll do it with whoever is in power with Iran precisely because we have serious – very serious – differences with their leadership.”
“We believe that preventing them from acquiring a nuclear weapon is an important step in then trying to address the other issues that we have with Iran,” he repeated, saying, “Because again, as President Biden and the Secretary of State have made clear, we see the return to the JCPOA as a beginning of a diplomatic process, not at the end, because we have many other issues of concern that we need to raise from Iran’s (inaudible) groups in the region, to its ballistic missile program, to its many other destabilizing activities.”
Meanwhile, another official involved in the Vienna Talks said Iran’s enrichment with large numbers of advanced centrifuges is an unresolved issue, as is its demand to “verify” US compliance before curbing nuclear development. This verification, said the official, would include the easing of sanctions, the Iranian export of some of oil and allowance of its payment through an international bank.
A Western diplomat agreed there is a major stumbling block on the sequencing of steps, with the Iranians demanding immediate access to US and to the international banking sector. The source also said advanced centrifuges, which can produce highly enriched uranium more efficiently, is a major sticking point – and suggested there may be a possibility that the Islamic Republic could be permitted to retain some.
Reuters contributed to this report.