US agrees to begin indirect talks on Iran’s nuclear program

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The US State Department on Friday said the US has agreed to talks next week with European, Russian and Chinese partners to identify issues involving its return to the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, nearly three years after Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price called the resumption of negotiations, scheduled for Tuesday in Austria, “a healthy step forward”. But Price added: “These remain early days, and we don’t anticipate an immediate breakthrough as there will be difficult discussions ahead.”

Agreement on the start of multiparty talks – being held to get Iran and the US over their differences on conditions for returning to the 2015 nuclear deal – came after talks Thursday brokered by other countries in the accord.

Trump pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, and President Joe Biden has said rejoining the agreement is a priority for his administration. The Biden administration and Iran have differed on conditions for that to happen, including the timing of the lifting of US sanctions against Iran.

‘No Iran-US meeting. Unnecessary’

Iran though has ruled out any indirect talks with the US, or a step-by-step lifting of sanctions proposed for next week’s meeting.

“In line with the unchangeable guideline of Iran’s (Supreme) Leader, any result of the [talks] which would be based on the idea of a step-by-step removal of the sanctions or indirect negotiations with the US will not be acceptable,” Iran’s state-run Press TV quoted an unnamed source as saying.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Friday immediately stressed that no meeting was planned between officials from Iran and the US.

In a tweet, Zarif said the aim of the Vienna session would be to “rapidly finalise sanction-lifting & nuclear measures for choreographed removal of all sanctions, followed by Iran ceasing remedial measures. No Iran-US meeting. Unnecessary,” he added.

Working groups set up by Europeans

Diplomats had said earlier on Friday that officials from Tehran and Washington would travel to Vienna next week as part of efforts to revive the 2015 accord.

Price said the talks would be structured around working groups the European Union is going to form with the remaining participants in the nuclear agreement, including Iran.

The primary issues to be discussed are nuclear steps Iran would need to take to return to compliance with terms of the nuclear pact, and the sanctions relief steps the US would need to take in order to return to compliance as well, the statement said.

“We do not anticipate presently that there will be direct talks between the United States and Iran through this process, though the United States remains open to them,” Price said.

The talks will begin in Austria on April 6.

‘The way ahead will not be easy’

Russia’s ambassador to international organisations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, said that “the impression is that we are on the right track, but the way ahead will not be easy and will require intensive efforts. The stakeholders seem to be ready for that”.

Any return of the US would involve complications.

Iran has been steadily violating the restrictions of the deal, like the amount of enriched uranium it can stockpile and the purity to which it can enrich it. Tehran’s moves have been calculated to put pressure on the other nations in the deal – Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain – to do more to offset crippling sanctions reimposed under Trump.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said that over the past two years, Iran has accumulated a lot of nuclear material and new capacities and used the time for “honing their skills in these areas”.

As part of its ongoing violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran last month began restricting IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities. Under a last-minute deal worked out during a trip to Tehran, however, some access was preserved.

Under that temporary agreement, Iran will no longer share surveillance footage of its nuclear facilities with the IAEA, but it has promised to preserve the tapes for three months. It will then hand them over to the Vienna-based UN atomic watchdog if it is granted sanctions relief. Otherwise, Iran has vowed to erase the tapes, narrowing the window for a diplomatic breakthrough.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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