Iran and US begin indirect talks in Vienna to restore nuclear deal

Campbell MacDiarmid
·3 min read
An Austrian police officer stands in front of the Grand Hotel Wien where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna - AP
An Austrian police officer stands in front of the Grand Hotel Wien where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna - AP

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator said talks in Vienna aimed at salvaging its nuclear deal with world powers had a “constructive” start on Tuesday, after a US delegation arrived in the Austrian capital where Iran and the five remaining signatories to the agreement were meeting.

Abbas Araqchi told Iranian state television that the talks, which indirectly involve the United States, will continue on Friday.

Though the delegations from Tehran and Washington are not expected to meet face to face, the talks are the most serious attempt yet to restore the 2015 nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers since former US president Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned it in 2018.

Since then the United States has reimposed crippling economic sanctions on Iran, as Tehran has progressively walked back from its own commitments under the accord by exceeding limits on its enriched uranium stockpiles and installing advanced centrifuges.

An immediate breakthrough is not expected, with Tehran rejecting direct negotiations with Washington and insisting that sanctions be lifted entirely before it returns to compliance.

Q&A | The 2015 Iran nuclear deal
Q&A | The 2015 Iran nuclear deal

Mr Aracqchi said Tuesday that Iran rejected a proposal to suspend enriching uranium to 20 percent purity in return for unfreezing $1 billion of its assets blocked in other countries due to the reimposition of US sanctions.

Iran’s insistence on US sanctions being removed in a single step may may progress difficult, according to an EU official, who said working groups would be created with the aim of matching lists of sanctions that the United States could lift and nuclear obligations that Iran should meet.

While US President Joe Biden made restoring diplomacy with Iran a campaign promise, his administration says negotiations are required before it returns to the agreement.

The indirect talks came as the five countries still in the accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, were holding a European Union-chaired meeting at the Grand Grand Hotel Wien in the Austrian capital.

A US delegation headed by the administration's special envoy for Iran, Rob Malley, is staying at a nearby venue.

China, which like Russia also sent representatives to Vienna, said on Tuesday that the US should act first as it abandoned the agreement first. “The US should return to the deal unconditionally, and lift all illegal sanctions against Iran and long-arm jurisdiction over a third party,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement.

The 2015 agreement, which was also reached in Vienna, lifted sanctions on Iran in return for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme to make it harder for it to develop an atomic bomb, something Iran says it has no wish to do.

Special envoy Mr Malley has suggested that progress may be incremental.

"This is going to involve discussions about identifying the steps that the US has to take and identifying the steps that Iran is going to have to take," Mr Malley told NPR radio on Tuesday. "Because they've been increasingly in noncompliance with their nuclear commitments."

But Tehran says it is incumbent on the US to prove its good will.

"We are confident that we are on the right track, and if America's will, seriousness and honesty is proven, it could be a good sign for a better future for this agreement," Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei told reporters.

The EU official said the aim is to reach some form of a deal before Iran’s presidential election in June.