Iran and the United States said on Friday they would hold indirect talks in Vienna from Tuesday as part of broader negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and global powers.
The Islamic Republic has ruled out face-to-face bilateral discussions, but the presence of both Iran and the US in the Austrian capital – welcomed by Washington as a “healthy step forward” – will help focus efforts to bring all sides back into compliance with the accord.
The aim is to reach an agreement within two months, said a senior official with the European Union, the coordinator of the deal. Iran holds elections in June.
In 2018, former US president Donald Trump pulled out of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and reimposed sanctions on Iran, prompting it to violate some of the pact’s nuclear restrictions.
His successor US President Joe Biden wants to revive the accord, but Washington and Tehran have been at odds over who should take the first step.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had warned the Obama administration not to enter the deal in 2015, speaking out against it again when the Biden administration raised the issue of returning to the agreement.
Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi warned US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a phone conversation on Friday that Iranian actions were destabilizing the region.
“We also discussed regional strategic issues and Iran’s perpetual and intensifying violations of its nuclear commitment, as well as Iran and its proxies’ regional activities, which escalate and undermine the stability of the Middle East,” Ashkenazi said in a Twitter statement.
He added that Blinken had “updated me on the talks expected to be held next week in Vienna.”
The State Department said that during the call Blinken “reiterated the United States’ strong commitment to Israel and its security and looks forward to strengthening all aspects of the US-Israel partnership.”
A European diplomatic source clarified that the talks between the US and Tehran would be indirect.
“Iran and the US will be in the same town, but not the same room,” a European diplomatic source said.
A Western diplomat said a shuttle diplomacy approach would be adopted.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said the talks would be structured around working groups that the EU is going to form with remaining participants, including Iran.
“We don’t anticipate an immediate breakthrough as there will be difficult discussions ahead. But we believe this is a healthy step forward,” he said in a statement, adding that Washington remained open to direct talks with Tehran.
The State Department’s Principal Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter said at a press briefing on Friday that it is yet to be announced who will represent the administration in the talks.
“We don’t have any specific announcements to make about details of who will participate from the US in that meeting,” she said.
“We’re going to talk about nuclear steps that Iran would need to take in order to return to a compliance with the terms of the JCPOA. And we won’t preview any specific sanctions, but we’ll definitely say that sanction relief steps, that the US would need to take in order to return to that compliance as well, will be up for discussion,” Porter added.
“The goal is a mutual return to compliance of the JCPOA,” she said.
Negotiating lists of sanctions that the US could lift and nuclear obligations that Iran should meet “should marry at some point,” the EU official said.
“In the end, we are approaching this in a parallel way. I do think we can do it in less than two months,” the official said.
Iran wants the US to lift all sanctions and rejects any “step-by-step” easing of restrictions, the Foreign Ministry said on Saturday ahead of the planned talks in Vienna.
The comments came as France urged Tehran to show a constructive stance in the indirect talks with Washington, which will be part of broader negotiations.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said that Tehran opposed any gradual easing of sanctions.
“No step-by-step plan is being considered,” he told state broadcaster Press TV. “The definitive policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is the lifting of all US sanctions.”
Iran, China, Russia, France, Germany and Britain – all parties to the 2015 deal – held virtual talks on Friday to see how to progress.
“Aim: Rapidly finalize sanction-lifting & nuclear measures for choreographed removal of all sanctions, followed by Iran ceasing remedial measures,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter. “No Iran-US meeting. Unnecessary.”
Two diplomats said the first round of talks could last several days, followed by two or three subsequent rounds in the following weeks to tackle tricky issues.
Under the 2015 accord, US and other economic sanctions on Iran were removed in return for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program to make it harder to develop a nuclear weapon – an ambition Tehran denies.
Diplomats said last month that the odds of Washington and Tehran making progress to revive the deal before the Iranian election had dwindled after Iran toughened its stance.
“If we don’t get there in two months... it will be definitely bad news,” the EU official said.•