Talks on Iran’s nuclear program begin in Vienna

Negotiators have launched a new round of talks on Iran nuclear program in Vienna on Thursday, seeking to salvage the deal over Tehran’s atomic ambitions.

Officials from world powers and Iran were meeting in the Austrian capital for the first time since March, when talks, which began in 2021 to reinstate the United States into the deal, stalled.

In late June, Qatar organized indirect talks between Tehran and Washington in hopes of getting the process back on track – but those talks failed to make a breakthrough.

In a last-ditch effort, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell presented a compromise proposal last month and called on the parties to accept it to avoid a “dangerous nuclear crisis”.

Borrell said the draft text includes “hard-won compromises by all parties” and “addresses, with precision, the lifting of sanctions as well as the nuclear measures necessary to reinstate” the 2015 pact.

The bilateral talks began on Thursday at the luxury Palais Coburg hotel in Vienna under the auspices of European Union representative Enrique Mora.

The Iranian and Russian delegations, traditionally close in negotiations, held a separate meeting.

Britain, China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia and the United States signed the JCPOA in July 2015. Delegations from all will take part in Thursday’s talks, but US and Iranian officials should not meet face to face.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action aims to ensure the civilian character of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for a gradual lifting of sanctions.

But after the unilateral US withdrawal in 2018 under former President Donald Trump and the reimposition of US sanctions, Tehran backtracked on its obligations.

Iran then surpassed the JCPOA uranium enrichment rate of 3.67%, rising to 20% in early 2021.

It then crossed an unprecedented threshold of 60%, approaching the 90% needed to make a bomb.

The head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, Rafael Grossi, warned on Tuesday that Iran’s program was “moving very, very fast” and “growing in ambition and capacity”.

– Cautious optimism –

Ahead of Thursday’s talks, officials expressed cautious optimism, while warning that the parties remained distant on key issues.

These include sanctions, Iranian demands for safeguards and the end of an investigation by the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The head of the US delegation, Rob Malley, and the head of Tehran’s representatives, Ali Bagheri, said on Twitter ahead of the talks that they came in good faith but trust each other.

Analysts meanwhile said relaunching the JCPOA remains the best option.

“The last thing the United States needs is a nuclear crisis with Iran that could easily escalate into a broader regional conflict,” Suzanne DiMaggio, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a statement.

Ellie Geranmayeh, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), said that “at the end of the day, Tehran and Washington know that the alternatives to a collapse of the JCPOA are dire.”

“It’s unlikely to be a meeting that resolves outstanding issues,” but “it could create the breakthrough needed to push the talks toward a finish line rather than a collapse,” she said.