World · August 5, 2022

Talks on the Iranian nuclear program begin in Vienna

Negotiators began a new round of talks on Iran’s nuclear program in Vienna on Thursday, seeking to salvage the agreement on Tehran’s atomic ambitions.

Officials from world powers and Iran met in the Austrian capital for the first time since March, when negotiations, which began in 2021 to reintegrate the United States into the deal, stalled.

In late June, Qatar hosted indirect talks between Tehran and Washington in hopes of getting the process back on track, but those talks failed to make a breakthrough.

In a final effort, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell presented a compromise proposal last month and called on the parties to accept it to avoid a “dangerous nuclear crisis”.

Borrell said the draft text includes “hard-won compromises by all sides” and “addresses, in detail, the lifting of sanctions and nuclear measures needed to restore” the 2015 pact.

Bilateral talks began on Thursday at the luxurious Palais Coburg hotel in Vienna under the auspices of European Union representative Enrique Mora.

The Iranian and Russian delegations, traditionally close in the negotiations, held a separate meeting.

Britain, China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia and the United States signed the JCPOA in July 2015. Delegations from all will attend talks on Thursday, but US and Iranian officials are not expected to meet face to face.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action aims to ensure the civilian nature of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for a gradual lifting of sanctions.

But following the unilateral US withdrawal in 2018 under former President Donald Trump and the reintroduction of US sanctions, Tehran backed down on its obligations.

Iran subsequently surpassed the JCPOA’s uranium enrichment rate of 3.67%, climbing to 20% in early 2021.

It then passed an unprecedented 60 percent threshold, approaching the 90 percent needed to build a bomb.

UN chief Rafael Grossi warned on Tuesday that the Iranian program “is moving forward very, very fast” and “growing in ambition and capacity”.

– Cautious optimism –

Ahead of Thursday’s talks, officials expressed cautious optimism, while warning that the parties remained aloof on key issues.

These include sanctions, Iranian demands for guarantees and the end of an investigation by the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The head of the US delegation, Rob Malley, and the head of Tehran representatives, Ali Bagheri, said on Twitter before the talks that they would come in good faith, but they put the burden on each other.

Analysts meanwhile said the revival of the JCPOA remained the best option.

“The last thing the US needs is a nuclear crisis with Iran that could easily escalate into a larger regional conflict,” Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior member of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a statement.

Ellie Geranmayeh, an analyst with the European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR), said that “at the end of the day, Tehran and Washington know that the alternatives to the collapse of the JCPOA are terrible”.

“This is unlikely to be a meeting that resolves the outstanding issues,” but “it could create the necessary breakthrough to push the talks to a milestone rather than a collapse,” he said.