Negotiations to bring the United States and Iran back into a landmark nuclear deal are set to resume on Thursday in Vienna amid signs of progress – but also under the shadow of an attack this week on Iran’s main nuclear facility.
In response to the attack on Natanz nuclear facility, for which Tehran blamed Israel, Iran decided to ramp up uranium enrichment to a new high of 60 percent purity, drawing concern from European powers and the US.
But Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday sought to allay Western concerns over Tehran’s decision to boost uranium enrichment, saying the nuclear programme is “peaceful”.
“We are not seeking to obtain the atomic bomb,” Rouhani said in televised remarks.
Known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, the deal has been unravelling since former US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from it in 2018 and imposed sanctions on Iran.
The deal agreed under former US President Barack Obama had given Iran relief from sanctions in return for a cap on its nuclear programme. Iran has has since breached the nuclear activity beyond the limit allowed in the 2015 deal.
Trump’s successor Joe Biden has pledged to revive the deal as part of his election manifesto. Biden was the vice president when the deal was formalised.
But his top diplomat Antony Blinken has said that the deal needs to be renegotiated to address Iran’s ballistic missile programme and regional influence such as backing rebel groups as part of regional proxy wars.
Regional powers and key US allies – Saudi Arabia and Israel – have opposed any deal with Iran, with Israel accusing Tehran of secretly developing a nuclear weapon. Iran has denied the charges, saying its nuclear facilities are under inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
What’s on agenda?
US President Joe Biden has said that he wants to rejoin the deal, but that Iran must reverse its violations.
The European Union called the talks in the hopes of doing just that.
Though an American delegation is present in Vienna, they are not meeting directly with Iran. Instead, diplomats from other countries shuttle back and forth between the two sides.
Heading into the talks as they started last week, Iran said it was willing to return to full compliance with the deal, but that the US would first have to drop all the sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.
That is complicated, however. The Trump administration also added sanctions on Iran outside those related to its nuclear programme, including over allegations of terrorism, human rights violations and for the country’s ballistic missile programme.
Still, there are signs of hope. The talks quickly moved past that “who goes first” debate and have already started addressing specifics, said Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, an Iran scholar at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.
“It’s a very good development that there are these working groups actually talking and looking at the nitty-gritty,” she told The Associated Press.
For Iran to return to the deal, it must revert to enriching uranium to no more than 3.67-percent purity, stop using advanced centrifuges and drastically reduce how much uranium it enriches, among other things.
Despite the challenges, Tabrizi said the task ahead is not as complicated as the one that faced the group in 2015 since they already have a deal to refer to.
Timeframe for talks
There is no specified timeframe. Diplomats involved say the issues cannot be solved overnight, but they are hoping for a resolution in weeks rather than months – for several reasons.
The original deal was agreed after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, widely seen as a moderate, first took office.
Rouhani cannot run again in upcoming June elections due to term limits, and he hopes to be able to leave office with Iran again able to sell oil abroad and access international financial markets.
Meanwhile, the US could face a much tougher negotiation if it is not able to get a deal before Rouhani leaves. Hard-liners in Iran reject the nuclear deal, saying it has not delivered enough economic relief and is a slippery slope to more pressure on Iran.
That does not necessarily mean they would end talks if a hard-line president elected, though it would complicate things, said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Chatham House policy institute’s Middle East and North Africa programme.
There is another reason to move quickly: Iran in February began restricting IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities. Instead, it said that it would preserve surveillance footage of the facilities for three months and hand them over to the IAEA if it is granted sanctions relief. Otherwise, Iran said it would erase the recordings.
Over the weekend, Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility was sabotaged. It is not clear what exactly happened, but it is known that a blackout damaged centrifuges there.
The attack was widely suspected of being carried out by Israel, which opposes the nuclear deal, though authorities there have not commented.
Iran says Israel explicitly hopes to derail the talks with the sabotage. Rouhani said he still hoped the talks would yield a result – but the attack has complicated matters.
For one, Iran responded by announcing it would increase uranium enrichment to 60-percent purity – far higher than ever before – and install more advanced centrifuges at the Natanz facility.
And in the wake of the developments, both sides have ramped up the rhetoric.
On Wednesday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of state in Iran, dismissed all offers seen so far in Vienna as “not worth looking at”. Still, he said he had confidence in his negotiators.
Blinken, meanwhile, said Washington had shown its seriousness by participating in the indirect talks in Vienna, but with Tehran’s recent announcements, “it remains to be seen whether Iran shares that seriousness of purpose”.