Iran’s outgoing Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has expressed optimism about the ongoing talks in Vienna aimed at salvaging his country’s nuclear deal with world powers, suggesting an agreement might be possible even before new President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in August.
“There is a good possibility that we will reach an agreement before the end of our tenure,” Zarif told Al Jazeera’s Sami Zeidan during a session of the Antalya Diplomacy Forum on Saturday, on the same day that Raisi, a conservative, was declared the winner of Iran’s presidential election.
The 2015 nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed to curb Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.
However, former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the accord in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran’s economy as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran. In response, Iran has stepped back from key nuclear commitments, leaving the JCPOA hanging by a thread.
Since April, Iran and the other signatories – Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany and the European Union – have been trying to find common ground to keep the deal alive.
“The talks are going on right now as we speak,” Zarif said in Turkey’s Antalya. “The text is getting cleaner and cleaner. The brackets are being removed,” he added smiling, without offering more details.
Zarif’s optimistic tone contrasted somewhat with the cautiousness expressed on Friday by Russia’s envoy to the Vienna talks, Mikhail Ulyanov.
“Some difficult and time-consuming topics still remain unresolved,” Ulyanov said, noting that progress had been made in the last few days.
France’s foreign ministry had also said on Wednesday there were still significant disagreements.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price on Thursday repeated the US’s view that the Vienna talks had made progress since they began in April but that challenges remained, saying he could not put a “time frame” on when the current round might end.
Hopes of saving the JCPOA have risen following the elevation of Joe Biden to the White House in January. The US president wants to resurrect the deal and even extend its terms, and several rounds of indirect US-Iranian negotiations have taken place.
The talks are not direct because Iran refuses face-to-face meetings, but the US has held discussions with many of the participants.
“Most of our problems are cognitive,” Zarif said at the forum. “The problem is the United States has to come to the recognition that it was the United States that left the deal with an objective, and that objective was not achieved.
“Now it is coming back to the deal, so it cannot dictate the objectives that it couldn’t achieve through economic war on the negotiating table. I think that’s a cognitive transformation that the US administration needs to make. And I think we are getting there, but not there yet.”
Commenting on Friday’s election in Iran, Zarif said the electoral procedures that brought Raisi to the presidency must be respected.
“From now on everyone of us will have to work in a way, whether we disagree with him or whether we agree with him, whether we liked his policies or whether we disliked his policies, he is now elected by the people,” he said.
Raisi, despite siding with the hardliners who staunchly opposed the nuclear deal, campaigned on the promise to achieve sanctions relief and said he would respect any state commitment taken by the previous administration, including the JCPOA.
He did, however, point out that he planned to form a “strong” government to steer the agreement in the right direction.