Iranian, Chinese and Russian teams meet ahead of crunch nuclear talks

The Iranian flag in front of the IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Iran's negotiating team held bilateral and trilateral meetings in Vienna on November 28, 2021.
The Iranian flag in front of the IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Iran's negotiating team held bilateral and trilateral meetings in Vienna on November 28, 2021. © Leonhard Foeger, Reuters

Iran's negotiating team, led by Ali Bagheri Kani, held bilateral and trilateral meetings in Vienna on Sunday, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported, ahead of Monday's resumption of nuclear talks to salvage the 2015 agreement between Iran and major world powers. 

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"The Iranian team arrived on Saturday in Vienna and started meetings, which continued on Sunday at an expert level with the heads of the Russian and Chinese negotiating teams, as well as the EU Coordinator Enrique Mora," Iranian diplomat Mohammad Reza Ghaebi told ISNA.

The meetings at the IAEA's Vienna headquarters came ahead of a resumption of talks to salvage the landmark 2015 nuclear deal after former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement, dismaying the other world powers involved – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

With the withdrawal, the US also reimposed sanctions on Iran that were lifted under the accord's terms.

In response, the Islamic Republic has flouted many of the restrictions set on its nuclear programme.

The indirect negotiations in Vienna resume Monday after a five-month suspension imposed by Iran.

The new round begins after a hiatus triggered by the election of a new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric.

Low expectations

But expectations of a breakthrough are low as Tehran's atomic activities rumble on in an apparent bid to gain leverage against the West.

Tehran's new negotiating team has set out demands that US and European diplomats consider unrealistic. They are insisting that all US and EU sanctions imposed since 2017, including those unrelated to its nuclear programme, be lifted.

In parallel, Tehran's conflicts with the UN atomic watchdog, which monitors the nuclear programme, have festered.

Iran has pressed ahead with its enrichment programme and the IAEA says its inspectors have been treated roughly and refused access to re-install monitoring cameras at a site it deems essential to reviving the deal with world powers.

"They are doing enough technically so they can change their basic relationship with the West to be able to have a more equal dialogue in the future," said a Western diplomat involved in the talks.

Western diplomats say they will head to Monday's talks on the premise that they resume where they left off in June. They have warned that if Iran continues with its maximalist positions and fails to restore its cooperation with the IAEA then they will have to quickly review their options.

Iran's top negotiator and foreign minister both repeated on Friday that full sanctions lifting would be the only thing on the table in Vienna.

"If this is the position that Iran continues to hold on Monday, then I don't see a negotiated solution,' said a  European diplomat.

Several diplomats said Iran was now between four to six weeks away from the "breakout time" it needs to amass enough fissile material for a single nuclear weapon, although they cautioned it was still about two years from being able to weaponise it.

Should the talks collapse, the likelihood is the US and its allies will initially confront Iran at the IAEA next month by calling for an emergency meeting.

Western powers will also want to try to keep Russia, which has political influence on Iran, and China, which provides economic breathing space to Tehran through oil purchases, on board as they initially seek alternative diplomatic options.

One scenario diplomats say Washington has suggested is negotiating an open-ended interim accord with Tehran as long as a permanent deal is not achieved. However, they say that it would take time and there is no certainty Iran has any appetite for it.

"Iran may calculate that its unconstrained nuclear advances and unmonitored centrifuge production will put more pressure on the West to give ground in talks quickly," Eurasia analyst Henry Rome said in a note.

"But it will likely have the opposite effect, signalling that the new Iranian team does not have an interest in resolving the nuclear issue and hastening the switch toward a more coercive policy next year."

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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