As President Joe Biden said Wednesday that there is some progress in Iran nuclear talks, China officially reported buying oil from Tehran, despite US sanctions.

In a press conference, Biden spoke two sentences about the Iran negotiations, but what he said was that it is not time to stop the nuclear talks, which are making “some progress.”

US officials have been saying for weeks that the multilateral negotiations in Vienna to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement, JCPOA, cannot go on forever and should reach a resolution in a matter of “weeks, not months.” But the Biden Administration has not put a clear deadline on when it would decide if the talks were productive.

Iran continues to enrich uranium at 60-percent purity and most analysts agree that it is shortening the time to having enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb. The US and its European allies have warned that with the kind of progress Iran is making the Vienna talks can become meaningless if they drag on.

“It’s not time to give up. There is some progress being made. The P5+1 is on the same page. But it remains to be seen,” was all Biden said during the press conference.

While the US President was saying that the P5, meaning permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, “is on the same page”, data released by China showed for the first time in a year that Beijing is officially importing Iranian oil in violation of US sanctions.

Reuters reported that China imported 260,312 tons of Iranian crude oil in December, according to data from the General Administration of Chinese Customs, which last recorded Iranian oil inflows in December 2020 at 520,000 tons.

Energy monitoring firms were reporting throughout 2021 that China was importing large quantities of Iranian oil indirectly, through third countries without registering the cargos as having originated in Iran. But now Beijing is officially disclosing its imports. The question is if the Biden Administration will respond in some way or prefer to have China’s support in the nuclear talks.

On the other hand, Iran has been boasting lately that it is defeating the sanctions, selling much more oil than in 2019-2020, implying that it does need to make concession at the Vienna talks. So China’s increased volume imports of Iranian oil and its official admission in customs data provides diplomatic leverage to Tehran.

Estimates are that oil exports have topped 600,000 barrels per day in 2021 compared with around 200,000 in 2019 and the first nine months of 2020. Imports from Iran have accounted for about 6% of China's crude oil imports, according to shipping data and trader estimates.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday argued that the Administration cannot provide guarantees to Tehran that the United States will never pull out of the nuclear deal, like former president Donald trump did in 2018.

“In our system you can’t give that kind of quick and serious guarantee. President Biden can certainly say what he will or won’t do as president as long as Iran remains committed to the deal, but we can’t bind future presidents. And that’s one of the things we’re talking about,” he said referring to the Vienna negotiations.

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