German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Saturday “now is the moment of truth” to determine whether Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers can be salvaged, and the Iranian leadership needs to make a choice.
Iran’s foreign minister, however, said it is up to Western countries to show flexibility and “the ball is now in their court”. He added Iran is ready to swap prisoners with the United States.
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Negotiators from Iran and the remaining parties to the agreement – the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China – are working in Vienna to restore life to the accord, which granted Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.
Scholz told participants at the annual Munich Security Conference that Iran nuclear talks have come a long way during the past 10 months and “all elements for a conclusion of the negotiations are on the table.”
But he also criticised Iran for stepping up its enrichment and restricting inspections by monitors from the UN nuclear agency.
“We now have the opportunity to reach an agreement that makes it possible for sanctions to be lifted,” Scholz said. “At the same time, it’s the case that if we don’t succeed very quickly in this, the negotiations threaten to fail.”
“The Iranian leadership now has a choice,” the chancellor added. “Now is the moment of truth.”
The US has participated indirectly in the talks because it withdrew from the deal in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump. President Joe Biden has signalled he wants to rejoin the deal.
Under Trump, the US reimposed heavy sanctions on Iran. Tehran has responded by increasing the purity and amounts of uranium it enriches and stockpiles, in breach of the accord – formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.
Speaking a few hours later at the same Munich conference, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said, “We are ready to achieve a good deal at the earliest possible time – if the other side makes the needed political decision”.
Amirabdollahian insisted “we are in a hurry” to reach a deal. But he made clear the issue of guarantees from the US about a restored deal’s future remains a sticking point.
“We have never been this close to a deal,” he said. “It is the Western side that has to present its initiatives and show flexibility … They have not shown any flexibility so far.”
Amirabdollahian added: “We believe prisoner swaps is a humanitarian issue … unrelated to the nuclear accord. We can do it immediately.”
A US Department of State spokesperson said on Thursday that “substantial progress has been made in the last week”.
“If Iran shows seriousness, we can and should reach an understanding on mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA within days,” the spokesperson said.
But “anything much beyond that would put the possibility of return to the deal at grave risk.”
Iran so far has declined to talk directly to the US. The foreign minister suggested direct negotiations would only make sense if the US lifts some sanctions or releases some Iranian assets frozen in foreign banks.
Iran has long insisted its nuclear programme is peaceful. But the country’s steps away from its obligations under the 2015 accord have alarmed its regional rival Israel and world powers.
Tehran has since started enriching uranium up to 60 percent purity – a short technical step from the 90 percent needed to make an atomic bomb, and spinning far more advanced centrifuges than those permitted under the deal.