US, Iran at loggerheads over nuclear deal after Russian interruption

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani arrives at Palais Coburg in Vienna for closed-door nuclear talks, on Feb 8, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

DUBAI/VIENNA (REUTERS) - Iran and the United States were at loggerheads over reviving the 2015 nuclear deal on Thursday (March 10) after Teheran suggested there were new obstacles and Washington said hard issues remained.

The differences emerged just as Western powers were already grappling with last-minute Russian demands that threatened to torpedo otherwise largely completed talks.

A week ago, preparations were being made in Vienna for a weekend meeting to conclude an agreement bringing Iran back into compliance with the deal's restrictions on its rapidly advancing nuclear activities and bringing the US back into the accord it left in 2018 by re-imposing sanctions on Teheran.

Then, last Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov unexpectedly demanded sweeping guarantees that Russian trade with Iran would not be affected by sanctions imposed on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine - a demand Western powers say is unacceptable and Washington has insisted it will not entertain.

Russia's demand initially angered Teheran and appeared to help it and Washington move towards agreement on the few remaining thorny issues, diplomats said, but a sudden volley of public comments by Iranian officials including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Thursday suggested the wind had turned.

"US approach to Iran's principled demands, coupled with its unreasonable offers and unjustified pressure to hastily reach an agreement, show that US isn't interested in a strong deal that would satisfy both parties," Khamenei's top security official Ali Shamkhani said in English on Twitter on Thursday morning.

"Absent US political decision, the talks get knottier by the hour," said Shamkhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council.

Shamkhani did not specify what the demands were but that there were any at all contradicted what four Western officials had said - that a final draft text had been agreed which only needed minor adjustments with the exception of the open question about Russia's sweeping demand for guarantees.

The text does, however, include a similar but much narrower guarantee covering nuclear cooperation between Russia and Iran outlined in the agreement, diplomats said.

The US on Thursday reiterated that it had no intention of accommodating Russia's last-minute demands, which it has said have nothing to do with the Iran talks and added that a small number of outstanding and difficult issues were still yet to be resolved for a deal to be reached.

"We also have no intention of offering Russia anything new or specific as it relates to sanctions nor is anything new required to successfully reach an agreement on a mutual return to full compliance with the JCPOA," State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

"We remain close to a possible deal. It's really down to a very small number of outstanding issues. But the reason these particular issues are outstanding is because they are among the most difficult ones," Price said.

Limping on

An Iranian official said on Thursday there were still two to three difficult questions to resolve and that Teheran was now also demanding a change in the sequencing of how an accord should be implemented.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian appeared to suggest one of the stumbling blocks remained the extent to which sanctions on Iran's elite revolutionary guards would be rolled back.

"Some topics related to our national heroes are not negotiable," he was quoted saying after a call with the European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

Iran has also said it wants guarantees that no future US president will again abandon a nuclear deal.

Underscoring Iranian concerns, former US vice-president Mike Pence said on Wednesday that should Washington agree a new accord and were the Republicans to take power again, they would "rip up any new Iran Nuclear Deal on day one."

European negotiators from France, Britain, and Germany have temporarily left the talks as they believed they had gone as far as they could and it was now up to the United States and Iran to agree on outstanding issues.

Negotiations in Vienna have limped on with just a fraction of the number of daily meetings that were taking place in previous weeks.

The talks' coordinator, Enrique Mora of the European Union, met Iran's chief negotiator Ali Bagheri twice on Thursday after meetings with Russia's chief envoy Mikhail Ulyanov on Tuesday and Wednesday.

With few signs of progress, France expressed the impatience of Western powers, which have long warned that time is running out because Iran's nuclear progress will soon have made the original deal's restrictions redundant.

"We are very close to an agreement, but the window of opportunity is closing," French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre told reporters in a daily briefing.

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