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Iranian nuclear: progress but still stumbling blocks

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Efforts, progress, positive path : the tone has changed after a painful start, even if Westerners continue to deplore the slowness of the process, given the parallel ramp-up of Tehran’s nuclear programme.

After a first cycle of sessions from April to June in Austria, meetings resumed on November 29 between the various States still party to the joint global action plan known by its English acronym Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action : Germany, France, United Kingdom, China, Russia and Iran.

The objective: to bring Washington back into the pact – which left it in 2018 – and bring Tehran back to respecting its commitments, broken in reaction to the reinstatement of American sanctions, with the key being a draconian oil embargo and the prohibition of any transaction with Iran.

If the talks started off on the wrong foot, they resumed at the end of December in a more optimistic and sustainable climate.

On Friday, the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, judged the atmosphere better only at the end of 2021 and estimated possible to come to an agreement in the next weeks.

There is real progresssaid earlier for his part the head of Russian diplomacy, Sergei Lavrov, an opinion shared by Tehran, which welcomed the current desire of all the negotiators to reach a a reliable and stable agreement.

Similarly, Washington, very pessimistic in December, noted modest progress, according to State Department spokesman Ned Price. Still, it’s not enough, he warned.

The talks are slow, too slow, also released the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, judging that they compromised the possibility of reaching an agreement in a realistic deadline.

The question of American guarantees

Between Iran and its interlocutors, views remain far apart on the scope of sanctions to be lifted, how to verify and guarantees that the United States will never go back on its word, explains Ali Vaez, the specialist in the file at the organization of prevention of the conflicts International Crisis Group.

To verify that the punitive measures have indeed been abolished, there are two areas: Iranian oil exports and Tehran’s ability to repatriate revenues associated with the sector as well as frozen funds, he told AFP. It can be done in a few days.

The subject of guarantees is more delicate: No US administration can tie the hands of its successors, says the expert.

On the other hand, he continues, Joe Biden’s team can and must provide assurance that companies investing in the Iranian market will not be exposed to US sanctions as long as Iran respects its commitments under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

What to do with centrifuges and enriched uranium?

On the nuclear side, the fate of the centrifuges used to enrich uranium remains to be settled.

Destruction, sealing or set of intermediate solutions are in debate, details a European diplomat questioned by AFP, Iran being opposed to the first option.

What also to do with the nuclear material in excess of the authorized limit produced by the Islamic Republic?

It will be exported to Russia or diluted to achieve low-enriched uranium, explains Mr. Vaez.

The various parties refuse to set a deadline, but the West regularly repeats that time is counted.

Only one left handful of weeks, thus warned Thursday the head of the American diplomacy, Antony Blinken.

Indeed, since the beginning of the year, the Islamic Republic has taken several steps, bringing the rate of uranium enrichment to unprecedented levels, close to the 90% needed to make a bomb, even if many other steps are required.

American hawks in ambush

If the talks failed, Mr. Blinken said study other measures with US allies in Europe, the Middle East and beyond. We are ready for all scenarios, he assured.

Sanctions could for example be voted on at the UN, suggests Mr. Vaez.

The hawks opposed to the 2015 agreement plead for Washington to redouble economic and diplomatic pressure before a possible military option.

A hundred elected Republicans this week called on the administration of Joe Biden to withdraw from the vain Vienna talks.

However, according to Julia Masterson of the Arms Control Association, it is in the common interest of Western powers to continue negotiations as long as Iran remains seated at the table.

The deal can be restored if both parties are creative and flexible, she wants to believe.

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