Iran and World Powers Begin Tough Nuclear Talks in Vienna

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Bloomberg News


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By Jonathan Tirone, Golnar Motevalli and Arsalan Shahla

(Bloomberg) —

Iran and world powers began their most serious attempt yet to resurrect a troubled nuclear deal, with negotiators from the U.S. and Islamic Republic gathered at the same venue for the first time since Donald Trump sent the accord into freefall in 2018.

The talks at Vienna’s Imperial and Grand hotels on Tuesday may extend through the end of the week if progress is made, according to two officials involved. Iranian and U.S. representatives aren’t expected to speak directly, reflecting the deep distrust they will have to overcome.

Oil rebounded as the chances of a breakthrough were seen by analysts as slim, reducing the odds that crude flows from Iran would pick up further in the near term.

Tensions over Iran’s accelerating nuclear program have threatened to spiral into open conflict since the Trump administration exited the 2015 agreement and reimposed punishing sanctions on an oil-dependent economy. They’ve also sparked attacks on Gulf shipping, and fueled the war in Yemen, including escalating strikes by Iran-backed rebels on Saudi Arabian oil facilities.

The two main protagonists are still far apart — Iran is insisting that Washington must first guarantee the full removal of sanctions for it to scale back its enrichment activity, while the Biden White House has ruled out any “unilateral gestures.”

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The three European nations helping to broker the talks — Germany, France and Britain — aren’t expecting any major positive outcome on Tuesday, partly because of Iran’s insistence that the U.S. remove sanctions in a single step, said a European official who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter. Still, the discussions are a move in the right direction that could eventually deliver a workable solution, the official said.

Oil Shipments

It’s important that the sides make progress before the end of May, said a second European official before the talks began, referring to a 90-day deadline that Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency agreed to on Feb. 22 in order to preserve the continuity of inspections data and give talks a chance. The official, who also asked not to be identified, put the probability of concrete action toward restoring the agreement before June at greater than 50%.

Iran holds presidential elections that month, which could push its politics further toward hardline conservatives emboldened by the standoff with the U.S.

Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, is leading discussions on behalf of the Biden administration. His Iranian counterpart is Abbas Araghchi, deputy foreign minister.

Ahead of the talks, China’s Foreign Ministry insisted it was up to the U.S., as the signatory that initially broke with the agreement, to send a strong, unconditional signal it’s ready for a deal.

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“We hope relevant parties can tell right from wrong and urge the U.S. to take concrete measures to lift the sanctions, meet Iran halfway and resume full implementation of the nuclear deal at an early date,” Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in Beijing.

China, a signatory to the 2015 deal along with Russia, has increased its leverage over Tehran in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, most recently signing a decades-long economic cooperation agreement.

‘Window of Opportunity’

Tehran breached some of the limits on its nuclear program more than a year after Trump abandoned the deal that was championed by his predecessor, Barack Obama. It has since repeatedly rebuffed direct talks with the Biden administration on reviving the pact.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, that the “window of opportunity” to break the deadlock with the U.S. over how to salvage the deal won’t close if the talks don’t deliver a breakthrough. But he warned it “won’t remain open forever.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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