Talks over Iran’s atomic program in Vienna seem likely to continue beyond Friday as United States and Iranian negotiators tackle European proposals to bridge gaps.

Iran’s chief negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani met Friday with Enrique Mora, the European Union official acting as a go-between with a US team led by special envoy Rob Malley, and with Wang Kun, China’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran has refused to meet the American face-to-face.

EU officials have argued that a text circulated by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in late July should be a basis for the US and Iran to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), which the US left in 2018 prompting Iran after 2019 to expand its nuclear program beyond JCPOA limits.

But the Europeans have also highlighted remaining challenges, including intricate links between ‘technical’ and political issues, the question of which US sanctions introduced after 2018 contravene the deal, and Tehran’s demand for guarantees over access to world markets if the JCPOA is revived.

A senior European official told journalists late Thursday that among “four or five” issues still under dispute by the US and Iran was Tehran’s progress in uranium enrichment. Complicating technical issues in returning Iran’s nuclear program to JCPOA limits, Tehran has not only employed advanced centrifuges barred under the JCPOA but acquired knowledge and expertise in their use – including when enriching to 60 percent purity, far above the 3.67 percent JCPOA cap, and close to the 90 percent considered ‘weapons grade.’

‘Tattered allegations’

Another niggling issue is questions raised by the IAEA over Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear work. It has been widely reported Iranian negotiators have argued in Vienna any probe be shelved. Israeli journalist Barak Ravid tweeted he had been told by European officials that Iran was making “unrealistic demands” outside the scope of the JCPOA.

In an interview with Iran’s Arabic-language TV station al-Alam published Friday, Mohammad Eslami, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said that agreement could be reached in Vienna if “the West…abandon their false excuses…tattered allegations and alleged documents…”

The IAEA in a 2015 report Final Assessment on Past and Present Outstanding Issues regarding Iran’s Nuclear Program found that weapons-linked work done by Iran before 2003 “did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies.” But in 2018 Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed on the basis of documents allegedly removed by Israel from Iran that the pre-2003 work had been more advanced that the IAEA realized.

The agency has lacked access to the documents. But after agency inspectors found uranium traces at sites linked to the pre-2003 work and IAEA director-general Rafael Mariano Grossi deemed Iran’s answers unsatisfactory, the agency’s board in June censured Iran with a resolution raised by France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Red lines and consultations

Speaking in Cambodia, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tehran was “absolutely legitimate” in demanding a restoration “without exceptions” of the JCPOA as signed in 2015 and then approved by the United Nations Security Council. Lavrov suggested the US was now trying to amend the agreement.

Iran International’s correspondent in Vienna, Ahmad Samadi reported that Lavrov’s words have had a negative impact on the atmosphere in Vienna.

Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said Friday in Tehran that Iran sought “economic benefit from the deal, observing the country’s red lines, and preserving our indigenous nuclear capacity.”

While the current Vienna talks, which began Thursday, have been widely called “last ditch,” and while Borrell argued in a Financial Times piece published July 26 that “the space for additional significant compromises has been exhausted,” previous rounds in the Austrian capital – which began April 2021 and paused March 2022 – have ended with negotiators returning to their capitals for further consultations.

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