Nuclear talks progress 'not enough' for Iran to change course

INSTEX payment system now operational, but Iran says needs to be used for oil purchases to be useful.

    Iran's top nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi says European trade proposals were a 'step forward' [Leonhard Foeger/Reuters]
    Iran's top nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi says European trade proposals were a 'step forward' [Leonhard Foeger/Reuters]

    Diplomats meeting in Vienna in a bid to save a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers made progress but it was "not enough" to stop Tehran scaling back compliance with the accord, according to the Iranian deputy foreign minister.

    Officials from the deal's remaining signatories - China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Iran - as well as the European Union, held talks in the Austrian capital on Friday after Tehran warned that it would soon breach a limit on the amount of enriched uranium set out in the agreement.

    "It was a step forward, but it is still not enough and not meeting Iran's expectations," Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told reporters. "I don't think the progress made today will be enough to stop our process but the decision will be made in Tehran."

    The meeting took place amid growing concern that the deal could collapse, a year after the United States unilaterally withdrew from the accord, which limits Iran's nuclear activity in exchange for relief from sanctions.

    After pulling out, the US reimposed sanctions on Iran and called for Iranian oil exports to be reduced to zero as part of a "maximum pressure" campaign against Tehran, which has dramatically reduced Iran's oil exports.

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    The remaining signatories to the deal want Iran to remain within its limits but Tehran says they have not offered sufficient incentives.

    In addition to the stockpile limit, Iran has said that in early July it will start to enrich uranium above the 3.67 percent cap agreed in the deal.

    Al Jazeera's Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from Tehran, said the progress at the talks was unlikely to be enough for the Iranians to remain within the limits set out in the deal.

    "What happens next is up to the leadership here to decide. We know that they are going to go ahead with scaling back their commitment," she said. "In the next few days, we'll see how far the Iranians go."

    INSTEX operational

    In a statement on Friday, the EU said Germany, France and the UK have set up a special trade channel with Iran that aims to circumvent US sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

    "France, Germany and the United Kingdom informed participants that INSTEX had been made operational and available to all EU Member States and that the first transactions are being processed," the EU said, referring to the trade channel's formal name.

    The countries that set up INSTEX have said that it would be "initially focusing on the sectors most essential to the Iranian population - such as pharmaceutical, medical devices and agrifood goods."

    This would avoid a clash with the US, as its sanctions permit trade in humanitarian goods.

    Araqchi said on Friday that INSTEX would need to expand to cover a wider range of goods in order to satisfy Iran.

    "For INSTEX to be useful for Iran, Europeans need to buy oil or consider credit lines for this mechanism otherwise INSTEX is not like they or us expect," he said.

    Oil exports are a key source of revenue for Iran.

    The payment system, which would act as a middleman in trade between Iran and European companies and reduce the need for direct transactions, had been widened to include more countries beyond the UK, France and Germany, he added.

    Reporting from Vienna, Al Jazeera's Dominic Kane said the meeting appeared to be broadly positive but cautioned that the world powers did not send high-level delegations to the talks.

    "This meeting had been presented by the Iranian side as perhaps the last chance to reach a conclusion," he said. "Iran sent its deputy foreign minister here but the other parties did not send senior foreign ministers to attend, so the ball is in the other parties' court."

    Foreign ministers from Iran and the five remaining signatories would meet "very soon", Araqchi said.

    China rejects US sanctions

    Meanwhile, China's delegate at the talks, Fu Cong, said Beijing would continue to import Iranian oil despite Washington's sanctions on Tehran.

    "We reject the unilateral imposition of sanctions," he said. "For us, energy security is important and the importation of Iranian oil is important to Chinese energy security and also the livelihood of the people."

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    He added that the meeting was "conducive to easing tensions in the region", referring to sabre-rattling between Washington and Tehran in the Gulf.

    Concern about a possible confrontation in the region escalated sharply last week when Iran shot down a US unmanned drone, which Tehran said was in its airspace. The US said it was downed in international airspace. US President Donald Trump ordered retaliatory attacks on Iran but later cancelled them, saying they would not have been proportional.

    It was the latest in a series of escalatory events in the Gulf region in recent weeks, including alleged attacks on tankers which the US has blamed on Iran, despite Tehran's denials.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies