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Vienna talks difficult, but no deadlock: Iran

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TEHRAN: Iran foreign ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh has said that the talks with western powers in Vienna to restore the 2015 nuclear deal are “complicated and difficult” but have not hit a standoff.

Saeed Khatibzadeh told a news conference, “The negotiations are complicated and difficult as they have reached key issues that need serious political decisions especially by Washington.”

But “there is no impasse in Vienna”, he added.

“If the US and European parties show real determination”, an agreement can be reached very soon in Vienna, Khatibzadeh said on Monday.

“We need objective guarantees to make sure the US does not leave the agreement once again and that it honours its commitments,” he added.

“All JCPOA sanctions with any labels must be lifted at the same time.”

Iran is engaged in negotiations with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia directly and with the United States indirectly to revive the deal formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The goals of the negotiations are to have the US return to the deal by lifting its anti-Iran sanctions and to have Iran return to full compliance with its commitments under the agreement.

The JCPOA offers Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.

But the US unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 under then-president Donald Trump and reimposed stiff economic sanctions, prompting Tehran to begin rolling back on its commitments.

The drive to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal resumed in late November.

Different parties to the agreement have in recent weeks signalled progress in the talks with some saying the negotiations are in their final stage.

Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, in a tweet on Monday said the negotiations have reached the stage that can be commented on with “certainty” and not speculation.

Meanwhile earlier, Iran’s uranium enrichment level has passed 4.5 percent, exceeding the cap set by the 2015 nuclear deal.

After months of military threats issued by the US, heavier sanctions imposed on the Iranian economy, and the downing of a US drone by Iranian forces, Iran has eased its uranium enrichment beyond the limit set out in its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. 

The country’s nuclear programme is now creeping closer towards weapons-grade levels, although it is still significantly short of the levels required.

The move threatens the nuclear deal brokered in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 (United States, Russia and China, Britain, France and Germany). Under the deal, Iran would curb its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions. 

But in May 2018, Trump unilaterally pulled the US from the deal. A year later to the day, Iran partially pulled out, threatening to increase its uranium enrichment in 60 days if no new terms were reached. It also says it will stop selling its excess enriched uranium and heavy water, as stipulated by the deal.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, says it is aware of Iran’s comments and is looking to “verify the announced development”.

These developments do not mean the end of the 2015 deal. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the cap for enrichment was set at 3.67 percent, a percentage closely monitored by inspectors from the IAEA. 

Enriched uranium at 3.67 percent is far below the weapons-grade levels of 90 percent. This means that Iran’s recent moves to increase enrichment and break its low-enriched uranium stockpile limit can be easily reversed.

Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for Iran’s nuclear agency, separately hinted in a state television interview on Monday that the country might consider reaching 20 percent enrichment or higher as its third step, if the material is needed. 

That would worry nuclear non proliferation experts, as 20 percent is a short technical step away from reaching weapons-grade levels of 90 percent. 

Experts warn higher enrichment and a growing stockpile would narrow the one-year window Iran would need to have enough material for an atomic bomb. This is something Iran denies it wants but the deal aimed to prevent nevertheless.

“As long as Iran does not get close to a threshold of a tonne of lightly enriched uranium, there is no pressing concern”, Francois Nicoullaud, a former French ambassador to Iran said.

However, he added: “[If Iran] amassed, for example, a stock of 200 to 300 kilo grammes of uranium enriched to nearly 20 percent, there would be cause for great concern.”

Even then, Nicoullaud noted, Iran could still not be deemed to be within months of being able to detonate a nuclear device.

And he explained that a growing stock of heavy water “presents no danger of proliferation, at least for many years”.

Under the heavy weight of additional US sanctions, the Iranian economy has experienced a major slump.

Tehran is seeking “primarily to preserve” the Vienna deal itself, Clement Therme, a researcher on Iran at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said. 

“The main problem for Iran is to avoid economic collapse… without provoking a war,” he said.

The steps taken so far by Iran show it is more interested in applying political pressure than moving toward a nuclear weapon, Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, told the western media. 

“Iran is not racing toward the bomb as some allege but these are calibrated moves,” Kimball said.  The future of the accord remains in question. Iranian and European diplomats are set to meet by July 15 to outline conditions to resume talks between all parties – a bid to find a way around US sanctions and deliver the deal’s promised economic relief. 

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