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Iran nuclear talks head toward finish line, but outcome is unclear

Negotiations are both ‘closer than we have been to a deal,’ in that some progress has been made, and ‘closer than we have been to breakdown,’ as time for agreement runs out, a U.S. official said

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian in Tehran on Feb. 7. (Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Talks between Iran and world powers over revitalizing the Iran nuclear agreement have reached their final stage and are expected to conclude one way or the other by the end of this month, according to participants.

“I don’t know if it’s one, two or three weeks,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said this week during a visit to Washington. But the latest round of meetings in Vienna, he said, are “certainly the last steps.”

While there is general agreement that negotiations are reaching an end state, opinions differ widely on the likely outcome.

Russia’s representative, Mikhail Ulyanov, who has adopted a generally optimistic tone since the talks started in April, said last week that negotiations should conclude “as soon as possible, preferably this month.” The talks, he said in an interview with the Russian news outlet Kommersant, had come “a long way” and were “very close to achieving” success.

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A senior U.S. official, however, noted that major issues on the table remain unresolved. Negotiations are both “closer than we have been to a deal,” in that some progress has been made, and “closer than we have been to breakdown,” as time for agreement runs out, the official said. “Both outcomes are still very possible,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to comment on the sensitive diplomacy.

But “based on where we are, it is more likely than not that we don’t succeed,” the official said. The Biden administration has said that only a “handful” of weeks remain before ongoing advances in Iran’s nuclear program will make agreement impossible.

In recent days, media outlets associated with hard-line Iranian factions have conveyed a sense that Tehran is committed to returning to the deal and that the decision has the blessing of the country’s highest leaders.

In a report Monday, Tasnim, a news agency associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, quoted an anonymous source “close to the Iranian negotiating team” as saying that the government had made its “political decision” on a return to the deal but that the obstacle was “decision-making by the United States.”

The Islamic Republic News Agency struck a similar tone in an article the same day, also quoting a source close to the negotiators as saying they had “consulted in detail with the highest authorities in the country” on the central issues involved in the nuclear discussions before returning to Vienna for the eighth round of talks this week.

“Compared to previous rounds of negotiations, the Iranian negotiating team has been present in the negotiations with wider and more complete coordination with the highest decision-making authorities in the country,” the report said.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was agreed upon in 2015 by Iran and the “P5+1,” the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — and Germany. The E.U. participated as coordinator of the negotiations that led to agreement.

Under its terms, the P5+1 agreed to lift U.S. and international sanctions imposed as a brake on Iran’s nuclear development program. For its part, Iran agreed to sharp limits on the program — which it has consistently said is intended only for peaceful purposes and not to produce nuclear weapons — and to international monitoring and verification of compliance.

The Trump administration withdrew the United States from the agreement in 2018, reimposing the lifted U.S. sanctions along with around 1,500 new ones designed to cripple the Iranian economy. In response, Iran has advanced its nuclear program far beyond the JCPOA limits, installing sophisticated new centrifuges that enrich uranium ever closer to that required to fuel a nuclear weapon.

President Biden campaigned on a promise to restore U.S. participation in the deal, pledging “compliance for compliance” in eliminating all nuclear-related sanctions in return for Iran returning to the original JCPOA limits. Negotiations, again coordinated by the E.U., began last spring but were interrupted for months by July elections in Iran. Its new government adopted a much tougher stance when talks resumed in November.

“So far, we haven’t heard from Iran positions we believe are consistent” with full compliance, the U.S. official said. “They are still making demands that go beyond [U.S. positions] on the sanctions side and not reaching what we believe we need to reach on the nuclear side.” The administration has said that nonnuclear sanctions, imposed for human rights violations and to curb Iran’s development of ballistic missiles, are not eligible for lifting, because they were not part of the original JCPOA.

“There is no reason to be overly optimistic about the outcome,” the official said. “We haven’t been able to bridge the gaps.”

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The official rejected reports that a group of technical sanctions waived by the administration last week constituted a U.S. concession. “They were necessary in order for Iran to take the steps it would need to take” to achieve compliance, the official said, allowing them to begin discussions with third parties to arrange for the removal from the country of uranium enriched beyond the JCPOA limits, the official said. Under the original agreement, such material was transferred to Russia.

U.S. officials have also denied reports that an interim agreement, with partial compliance on both sides, was possible. Ulyanov, speaking in the Kommersant interview, said that while an “intermediate solution” might have been possible last year, that is now “completely irrelevant. It is not considered.”

Senior Iranian officials on Thursday charged that the other side was dragging its feet. In remarks to a group of foreign ambassadors in Tehran marking the 43rd anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said that “today in Vienna, the United States and the Western parties are faced with a litmus test in which they must show their real behavior to the world,” according to Iranian media reports.

“The termination of the negotiations will be determined by the Western side’s resolve to remain fully committed to the removal of sanctions and return of all sides” to full compliance “with their commitments,” he said.

Addressing the same event, President Ebrahim Raisi said the Biden administration was no different from its predecessor in its policies and actions.

Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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