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VIENNA – After three weeks of talks, talks over the Iran nuclear deal are almost back to where they were at the start of the summer.
Yet, diplomats said, even this reflects progress, after a five-month suspension of negotiations after the election in June of Ebrahim Raisi, a die-hard conservative, as Iranian president.
“We now have a text which, with a few minor exceptions, is common ground for the negotiations,” said Enrique Mora, the senior EU official who coordinates the talks.
Iran resumed negotiations with the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China on November 29, with the EU acting as the talks coordinator. Since then, talks have perennially been on the verge of collapsing, with the new Iranian regime making new demands and restricting access to its nuclear facilities.
Now, diplomats said, they have agreed to work on the pre-election text, with slight amendments to reflect Iran’s latest proposals.
“Modest progress,” said a senior US State Department official. “We now have a common understanding of what will be the text that will serve as the basis for negotiations on nuclear issues.”
It is in the best interests of all parties to keep the talks alive, even with a low heartbeat. European countries have long defended the deal, the Iranian economy suffers from heavy sanctions, and the United States wants to show that it is making all diplomatic efforts.
Still, officials said negotiations must resume to be successful, as Iran’s rapid pace of nuclear advances erodes the potential benefits of a deal.
“This only brings us closer to the state of play of the talks in June,” warned senior European diplomats at a joint briefing.
The senior State Department official echoed the sentiment. What is on the table now, the official said, is “a program of questions to be considered, not a set of solutions to be accepted.”
Iran and the United States are not in direct negotiations, with Tehran still worried about former US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal – known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA – in 2018. Instead, they rely on European diplomats to act as intermediaries.
When Iran returned to the table in November, it was unwilling to resume negotiations on the basis of the texts that had been negotiated by the previous Iranian administration earlier in the year, changing nearly 90% of that. which was agreed in June, Western officials said. .
EU and US negotiators found the approach unacceptable and said it had prevented them from “getting down to real negotiations”.
The new Iranian negotiating team led by Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani has also made new demands. According to a senior Western diplomat, Iran wants, among other things, greater access to carbon fiber, as previously reported by the the Wall Street newspaper. The material is commonly used in airplanes and sports equipment, but it can also be used to produce centrifuge rotors used to enrich uranium.
Iran is also demanding that all sanctions be lifted, including those imposed by Trump as part of the so-called maximum pressure campaign.
Western officials said the United States had put a good offer on the table and that it was up to Iran to accept it. But the issue of lifting the sanctions has not been at the center of this seventh round of talks, according to a senior State Department official. “We are not there yet. ”
Separately, a collapse in nuclear talks was averted on Wednesday after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reached a deal Russia-brokered with Iran allowing international inspectors to replace cameras in one. workshop in Karaj, a city west of Tehran, where parts for centrifuges are produced.
By concluding the deal, Iran avoided a censorship resolution that the United States had threatened to present to the IAEA Board of Governors before the end of the year. Iran had said it would withdraw from nuclear negotiations in such a case.
The cameras were due to be replaced because one of the IAEA’s four cameras was destroyed in June in what Iran calls an act of sabotage it blames on Israel. The other three cameras have been withdrawn by Iran and they also kept their flashcards, saying they will only return them once a deal is reached in nuclear talks and the sanctions are lifted.
IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi on Friday showed an example of a camera, similar to those to be relocated at the Karaj assembly plant, to a packed house of international journalists. In an apparent response to Iranian claims that cameras can be hacked, Grossi explained that the cameras cannot be tampered with because they are IAEA-sealed and not connected to a computer.
Grossi also said his inspectors “have ways” to reconstruct the surveillance gap since the cameras were removed in June and their relocation in a few days. He said IAEA inspectors will be able to “piece together the puzzle”.
The stakes in the talks are high – their failure could lead to instability in the Middle East and an arms race in the region. Military action is not excluded either. Time is also running out, given the rapid progress of Iran’s nuclear program.
“We are quickly reaching the end of the road to this negotiation,” concluded senior European diplomats.
Ali Bagheri Kani, Iran’s chief negotiator, put it differently: “The pace of reaching an agreement depends on the will of the other side. If they accept Iran’s logical views and positions, the new round of talks may be the last and we can reach an agreement as soon as possible.
The eighth round of talks will start in Vienna after a hiatus, most likely before the end of the year.