By Michael Lipin and Guita Aryan
The U.S. says its indirect talks with Iran on reviving a 2015 nuclear deal made modest progress in the latest round that ended Friday, but it also says much work remains to be done to prevent what is left of the agreement between Tehran and world powers from quickly falling apart.
In a phone briefing with reporters, a senior State Department official cited two examples of “modest” progress at the talks in Vienna involving the U.S., Iran and five world powers acting as mediators between the two sides.
The first was Iran’s Wednesday agreement to let the International Atomic Energy Agency reinstall cameras that allow U.N. inspectors to observe an Iranian nuclear facility manufacturing advanced centrifuges in the city of Karaj. Those cameras were damaged in June in what Iran called an act of sabotage by its regional rival Israel, which has neither confirmed nor denied involvement.
The second example cited by the U.S. official is a common U.S. and Iranian understanding of a text that will serve as a basis for negotiations on what parts of Iran’s nuclear program may be curbed in return for a lifting of U.S. sanctions against Tehran.
But the U.S. official cautioned against enthusiasm over the text.
“What we have is an agenda of issues to be examined, not a set of solutions to be accepted. There still is a lot of work to do,” the official said.
The U.S. official also said Iran’s recent advances in its nuclear program that the West fears could be weaponized make it more urgent for Tehran to return to the curbs on that program previously agreed to under the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
“We made some progress, but … at a pace that will not be sufficient to get to where we need to go before Iran’s nuclear advances render the JCPOA a corpse that cannot be revived,” the official said.
Iran, which says its nuclear activities are peaceful, has been exceeding the curbs on its nuclear activities since 2019 in retaliation for the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA a year earlier.
Then-U.S. President Donald Trump quit the JCPOA and unilaterally toughened sanctions on Iran, saying it was a better way to pressure Tehran into stopping malign behavior. Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden, has said a U.S. return to the JCPOA is the better course to prevent Iran from weaponizing its nuclear program, provided that Tehran also returns to honoring the deal.
Earlier Friday, Ali Bagheri Kani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and deputy foreign minister, tweeted that “good progress” had been made in Vienna in Iran’s seventh round of indirect talks with the U.S., following six previous rounds held from April to June.
Bagheri Kani added that Iran “will continue talks after a break of a few days.” There was no word from any of the parties at the talks as to exactly when the talks would resume.
Iran has said its priority in Vienna is securing the lifting of all U.S. sanctions, which have weakened an economy also plagued by government corruption and mismanagement. Tehran has declined to state publicly which nuclear activities it might curb in return.
Washington has said any sanctions relief for Iran should be limited to nuclear-related sanctions that were lifted under the 2015 deal and reinstated later by Trump, rather than sanctions imposed by Trump and Biden in response to Iran’s missile development, arming of regional proxies and poor human rights record.
Before departing Vienna, Bagheri Kani told Iranian state news agency IRNA that Iran had persuaded the three European mediators involved in the talks, U.S. allies Britain, France and Germany, to “accept Iran’s position as a basis for serious and effective negotiations.”
But the senior State Department official, responding to a question from a VOA Persian reporter in Vienna, said the U.S. does not believe Iran’s position is entirely consistent with the JCPOA.
“It’s hard to even define sometimes what their proposal is, but they certainly have taken positions … that are either beyond or inconsistent with the JCPOA. It is a common view of all of the members of the P5+1 that the only ideas that should be entertained are those that are consistent with the deal that was negotiated in 2015 and 2016.”
The P5+1 refers to the U.S. and the four other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, France, China and Russia — plus Germany.
The U.S. official expressed hope that Iran would agree to an eighth round of Vienna talks soon.
Iran analyst Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies told VOA that Tehran has grown more confident in its negotiating position in tandem with the United States’ withholding of punitive action against escalating Iranian nuclear activity.
“As Iran explores its escalation options, it is pivotal Washington signals that its patience is not endless,” Taleblu said. “Washington should also beware of overvaluing any prospective Iranian ‘concession’ that does not alter the direction of Iran’s nuclear program but rather is designed to stave off pressure.”
Guita Aryan contributed to this report from Vienna.