Talks to revive Iran nuclear deal resume; US stays distant

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FILE – The flag of Iran waves in front of the the International Center building with the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, in Vienna, AustriaI, May 24, 2021. On Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, negotiators are gathering in Vienna to resume efforts to revive Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, with hopes of quick progress muted after the arrival of a hard-line new government in Tehran led to a more than five-month hiatus. (AP Photo/Florian Schroetter, FILE)

VIENNA (AP) — Negotiators in Vienna resumed talks Monday over reviving Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, with the United States taking part at arm’s length as in previous rounds since the Trump administration pulled out of the accord three years ago.

Hopes of quick progress were muted after a hard-line new government in Tehran led to a more than five-month hiatus in negotiations. But the European Union official chairing the talks sounded an upbeat note after the first meeting concluded.

“I feel positive that we can be doing important things for the next weeks,” EU diplomat Enrique Mora told reporters.

All participants showed a willingness to listen to the positions and “sensibilities” of the new Iranian delegation, Mora said. At the same time, Tehran’s team made clear it wanted to engage in “serious work” to bring the accord back to life, he said.

The remaining signatories to the nuclear deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — Iran, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain — convened at the Palais Coburg, a luxury hotel where the agreement was signed six years ago.

A U.S. delegation headed by the Biden administration’s special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, stayed at a nearby hotel where it was being briefed on the talks by diplomats from the other countries.

President Joe Biden has signaled he wants to rejoin the talks. The last round, aimed at bringing Iran back into compliance with the agreement and paving the way for the U.S. to rejoin, was held in June.

“There is a sense of urgency in putting an end to the suffering of the Iranian people,” said Mora, referring to the crippling sanctions the U.S. re-imposed on Iran when it quit the accord.

“And there is a sense of urgency in putting the Iranian nuclear program under the transparent monitoring of the international community,” he said.

“What has been the norm over the first six rounds will be again the practice in this seventh round,” Mora added. “Nothing new on working methods.”

The United States left the deal under then-President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran in 2018.

The nuclear deal saw Iran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Since the deal’s collapse, Iran now enriches small amounts of uranium up to 60% purity — a short step from weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran also spins advanced centrifuges barred by the accord, and its uranium stockpile now far exceeds the accord’s limits.

Iran maintains its atomic program is peaceful. However, U.S. intelligence agencies and international inspectors say Iran had an organized nuclear weapons program up until 2003. Nonproliferation experts fear the brinkmanship could push Tehran toward even more extreme measures to try to force the West to lift sanctions.

Making matters more difficult, United Nations nuclear inspectors remain unable to fully monitor Iran’s program after Tehran limited their access. A trip to Iran last week by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, failed to make any progress on that issue.

Russia’s top representative, Mikhail Ulyanov, said he held “useful” informal consultations with officials from Iran and China on Sunday. That meeting, he said, was aimed at “better understanding … the updated negotiating position of Tehran.“ He tweeted a picture of a meeting Monday he described as a preparatory session with members before Iran joined the discussions.

A delegation appointed by new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is joining the negotiations for the first time. Iran has made maximalist demands, including calls for the U.S. to unfreeze $10 billion in assets as an initial goodwill gesture, a tough line that might be an opening gambit.

Ali Bagheri, an Iranian nuclear negotiator, told Iranian state television late Sunday that the Islamic republic “has entered the talks with serious willpower and strong preparation.” However, he cautioned that “we cannot anticipate a timeframe on the length of these talks now.”

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, meanwhile, suggested Monday that the U.S. could “receive a ticket for returning to the room” of the nuclear talks if it agrees to “the real lifting of sanctions.” He also criticized a recent opinion piece written by the foreign ministers of Britain and Israel, who pledged to “work night and day to prevent the Iranian regime from ever becoming a nuclear power.”

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, in a video address delivered to nations negotiating in Vienna, warned that he saw Iran trying to “end sanctions in exchange for almost nothing.”

“Iran deserves no rewards, no bargain deals and no sanctions relief in return for their brutality,” Bennett said in the videothat he later posted to Twitter. “I call upon our allies around the world: Do not give in to Iran’s nuclear blackmail.”

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called the meeting “the last opportunity for the Iranians to come to the table” after a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.

“We want those talks to work,” Truss said. “But if they don’t work, all options are on the table.”

In an interview with NPR broadcast Friday, U.S. negotiator Malley said signs from Iran “are not particularly encouraging.”

Russia’s Ulyanov said there’s pressure to get the process moving after “a very protracted pause.”

“The talks can’t last forever,” he tweeted on Sunday. “There is the obvious need to speed up the process.”

Mora, the EU official, said participants in Monday’s meeting agreed on an agenda for the coming days. Diplomats planned to discuss the issue of sanctions on Tuesday, followed by a meeting on Iran’s nuclear commitments Wednesday.

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Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, Jill Lawless in London, and Frank Jordans and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

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