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Iran Nuclear Deal Keeps Slipping Further Out of Reach as Talks Resume

·3 min read

(Bloomberg) -- The gulf separating Iran and the US has grown wider since the last round of nuclear talks in Vienna, European Union diplomats said as the latest negotiations resume.

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At least two new nuclear-related issues have cropped up in recent months, lengthening the list of hurdles to be cleared to six or seven, according to two EU officials familiar with talks that restarted in the Austrian capital Thursday. They asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations.

Although the remaining hurdles could technically be resolved within 72 hours, that would require high-level political decisions in both Tehran and Washington, capitals where the appetite for compromise appears muted, the diplomats said.

The downbeat outlook suggests there’s limited prospect for a deal that could ease the global energy crunch. The original 2015 agreement was designed to cap the Persian Gulf nation’s nuclear activities and boost its economy, and any revival would likely allow more energy production and exports by Iran, which has world’s No. 2 natural gas and No. 4 oil reserves.

“I’ve been working hard during the last two months in order to make everybody go back to Vienna,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Friday during an interview in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. “The next days will be decisive.”

The EU has been brokering talks for more than 15 months between US special envoy Robert Malley and his Iranian counterpart Ali Bagheri Kani. Tehran has refused to engage in direct negotiations since the Trump administration ripped up the agreement four years ago and reimposed punishing US sanctions.

More Uranium

Iran responded by ramping up its nuclear activities and restricting international monitoring. It’s accumulated enough enriched uranium to fabricate multiple weapons, if the country’s leadership chose to militarize its atomic work. While Iran has always said its program is entirely peaceful, world powers pursued the 2015 agreement to verify the claim.

The EU diplomats said that Iran’s growing stockpile of uranium enriched to 60% purity -- a level that International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors call technically indistinguishable from weapons grade -- has added complications. Tehran’s insistence that the IAEA resolve its investigation into decades-old nuclear activities has also emerged as a key issue.

The European diplomats still said there were enough glimmers of possibility to justify reconvening the talks. Iran has relented on earlier demands that the US lift sanctions against its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as its insistence that the US guarantee it won’t again renege on the agreement.

Instead, the officials said that the parties have made progress on specific indemnities that would guarantee Iran economic returns even if a new US administration or act of Congress overturned the deal again.

“The space for additional significant compromises has been exhausted,” Borrell wrote last week in the Financial Times. “I have now put on the table a text that addresses, in precise detail, the sanctions lifting as well as the nuclear steps needed.”

Politics may prevent either side from taking up the EU proposals, according to the diplomats. Iran knows that relinquishing its nuclear gains will mean sacrificing negotiating leverage built up over years. In the US -- where opposition to the nuclear pact is strong in both parties -- agreement with Iran could be tough for President Joe Biden, whose Democrats already risk losing control of Congress in November’s midterm elections.

Even if the current talks fall short again, it’s unlikely that the Iran deal will officially be pronounced dead, according to the EU officials. That’s in nobody’s interest, they said, suggesting a longer spell in limbo may be the likeliest outcome.

(Adds Borrell in the fifth paragraph.)

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