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US, EU and Iranian negotiators in Vienna to try and save JCPOA talks

What happened: US, EU and Iranian negotiators met in Vienna yesterday to resume months-long talks over a return to the JCPOA nuclear deal.

  • Iran’s top negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, met with EU mediator Enrique Mora. Russian Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov also met separately with Mora and Kani to present Moscow’s interests in the talks, which have intensified following the US placed sanctions on Russia over its invasion in Ukraine.
  • US Special Envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, wrote on Twitter shortly after the announcement was made to return to Vienna: “Our expectations are in check, but the United States welcomes EU efforts and is prepared for a good faith attempt to reach a deal. It will shortly be clear if Iran is prepared for the same.”
  • The talks are centred around EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s latest draft agreement, which he described last week in the Financial Times as “the best possible deal that I, as facilitator of the negotiations, see as feasible”.
  • On Wednesday Iran confirmed it has completed installing three advanced IR-6 centrifuge cascades at its Natanz fuel enrichment plant. Tehran has said it planned to install an additional six IR-2m cascades at the facility in a new operating unit.

Iran’s negotiating stance: Iran has stuck to its maximalist stance of demanding certain economic guarantees as well as a commitment by the Biden administration that the US would not leave the nuclear deal again.

  • According to the Iranian IRNA news agency, Tehran is also continuing to demand that America delist the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation as a precondition to a deal.
  • Meanwhile, IRNA also quoted Iran’s atomic energy chief Mohammad Eslami as saying turned-off surveillance cameras of the International Atomic Energy Agency only would be switched back on once the West abandons an effort to investigate manmade traces of uranium found at previously undisclosed sites in the country.
  • This is a new condition that would be a direct breach of the JCPOA deal.

US negotiating stance: The Biden administration believes a return to the JCPOA agreement is the best way to contain Iran’s nuclear programme.

  • US officials are also concerned the nuclear deal is close to becoming irrelevant, as Iran has taken steps to advance its nuclear programme and limit the work of UN inspectors.
  • Earlier this week the US unveiled new sanctions against six entities that have facilitated the international sale of Iranian oil and petrochemical products.
  • The sanctions are aimed at four companies — three Chinese firms and one Emirati company — that were used by one of Iran’s largest petrochemical brokers to sell oil and petrochemical products to East Asia, according to the US Treasury.
  •  “The US continues to pursue the path of diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to full implementation of” the 2015 nuclear deal, Brian Nelson, the Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said.
  • They follow other sanctions levied in June and July against the international networks supporting Iranian petrochemical sales.

Context: In late June, Qatar hosted indirect talks between Iran and the US in the hope of getting the process back on track – but those talks failed to make a breakthrough.

  • The US and Iran have a strong interest in keeping the prospect of returning to the JCPOA deal alive, despite concerns from US allies in the region. For the US, the continued focus on the JCPOA postpones a potentially costly pivot to increasing economic pressure and possibly military confrontation.
  • For Iran, continued diplomacy, even if unproductive, supports domestic markets, forestalls greater international pressure, and gives the country cover for its continued nuclear advancements.
  • As of the last public IAEA count, Iran has a stockpile of some 3,800kg of enriched uranium, which includes uranium up to 60 per cent purity — a level that is a short, technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90 per cent.
  • On Monday, Iran’s atomic energy chief Mohammad Eslami became the second Iranian official to declare that the country has already acquired the capacity to develop a nuclear bomb, but said it has no plans to do so.
  • Officials in Jerusalem do not believe the talks will result in a breakthrough. “The renewal of the nuclear talks is a desperate attempt the Iranians and the Europeans to wring water from stones. We don’t see much progress happening in the talks, and the fact that the Europeans sent a relatively junior representative is a sign of this,” a political source told Israel Hayom.
  • Former IDF Military Intelligence Head Amos Yadlin has argued it is possible that the inter-power conflict in Taiwan will push the US to make further concessions in the negotiations on the JCPOA in order to find a way to avoid dealing with three conflicts at the same time with the potential for military conflict: China, Russia and Iran.

Looking ahead: According to US officials, yesterday’s talks were not aimed at trying to close the gaps, but rather to see whether it was possible to do the “fine-tuning” needed to reach an agreement on the basis of Borrell’s latest draft.

  • Therefore, more talks will follow in the coming weeks if both sides believe there is a sufficient base to build off.
  • If not, Iran is likely to continue its nuclear escalation, which could be followed by more sanctions.

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