The first formal talks between western powers and the new Iranian regime on how to restore the 2015 nuclear deal were suspended on Friday, with Europe warning that Iran had walked back all previous diplomatic progress and fast-forwarded its nuclear programme.
It now seems possible the talks will collapse next week if Iran does not modify its demands, potentially risking an attack on Iran by Israel.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Enrique Mora, said the talks will reconvene next week, but warned time was not unlimited.
Diplomats representing the three European powers at the talks – Britain, France and Germany – said they were disappointed and concerned by the impasse.
They warned: “Tehran is walking back almost all of the difficult compromises crafted after many months of hard work,” adding major changes were being demanded. “Over five months ago, Iran interrupted negotiations. Since then, Iran has fast-forwarded its nuclear programme. This week, it has backtracked on the diplomatic progress made.”
They added that “it is unclear how these new gaps can be closed in a realistic timeframe on the basis of Iranian drafts. We have asked the coordinator to reconvene shortly.”
They said the purpose of the suspension was to “allow delegations to return to capitals to assess the situation and seek instructions”, before reconvening next week “to see whether gaps can be closed or not”.
The statement added: “Our governments remain fully committed to a diplomatic way forward. But time is running out.”
Iran’s new government, elected in June, tabled revised documents on the sanctions the US would be required to lift, as well as new proposals on what Iran would be required to do to come back into full compliance with the deal. A third paper on the benchmarks, including levels of oil exports and foreign currency transactions that would have to be met before Iran would judge that sanctions have been effectively lifted, has been published but not formally tabled.
EU diplomats said the proposals required the US to lift some sanctions imposed by Joe Biden that were clearly unrelated to the nuclear deal, so represented a hardening of Iranian demands agreed in the prior six round of talks with the previous set of Iranian negotiators.
The west is likely to return to the talks next Wednesday, but has the option of referring Iran to the UN security council for being in breach of its obligations under the 2015 deal. It is possible Iran would respond to such a reference by withdrawing from the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and refuse to rejoin unless Israel is required to join.
Iran admitted that progress was slow, adding its proposals could not be rejected since they were in line with the 2015 agreement.
Israel, not a participant in the talks, said its western allies needed to realise that Iran was stalling as it continued to develop its nuclear programme.
Strenuous efforts to reopen talks on how the IAEA, the UN nuclear inspectorate, could reach an agreement on the operations of its cameras at nuclear sites have also made little progress, adding to the sense of gloom.
The talks in Vienna are being held between Iran, Russia, China, Britain France and Germany. A US negotiating team is in Vienna but not permitted to join the talks by Iran, on the basis that Donald Trump left the deal in 2018.
Bagheri said: “We are negotiating a comprehensive agreement. We are negotiating a comprehensive agreement that will pave the way for the return of a country that has left the agreement. We are seeking the lifting of unjust illegal US sanctions.”
Mohammed Morandi, described as a member of the Iranian negotiating team but effectively acting as a spokesperson to the western media, accused Biden of criticising Trump’s policy of maximum pressure against Iran, but continuing the same policy against Iran since taking office. As well as the direct talks in Vienna, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, spoke with the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, in a bid to break the deadlock, but he admitted the Vienna talks had not been a success.