United States, Iran make progress at Vienna talks

Iran and the United States have made progress on virtually every issue under discussion in indirect meetings over the past two months. But as they began a sixth round of talks Saturday, the Biden administration remained unsure whether they are any closer to final agreement than they were at the beginning.

Remaining gaps could be closed “in a matter of weeks,” said the official, one of several U.S. and European officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive meetings in Vienna.

There have been advances “on every issue, every time we meet,” a senior administration official said of the talks aimed at both sides returning to compliance with the nuclear deal they signed in 2015.

“But 70 or 80 percent doesn’t matter,” the official said, until basic mistrust between the two sides is overcome and political decisions are made to accept the negotiated results.

Both have stated, in some cases with great specificity, steps they are willing to take toward compliance with the original terms of the nuclear deal. The administration has indicated which of the many U.S. sanctions on Iran it is prepared to lift. Many were imposed, or reimposed, by the Trump administration as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign begun after it withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018.

“We’ve checked quite a few boxes,” said an official from one of the European countries — Britain, France and Germany — that remain among the original signatories of the deal and are acting as go-betweens for Iran and the United States in the talks. The other signatories, also participating in the talks, are Russia and China.

Iran has said it is prepared to reverse steps it has taken in response to Trump, and in violation of the agreement’s limits on the quality and quantity of uranium enrichment it can undertake, including decommissioning of newly deployed sophisticated centrifuges and disposing of the more highly enriched product they have produced.

While unresolved questions of U.S. sanctions and Iranian capabilities remain, “we’re optimistic from a purely mathematical perspective” that “agreement is feasible,” the European official said. But “that’s only part of the answer. The rest is more political.”

At the highest political levels, each wants something that would make agreement far easier to sell at home but may be impossible for the other side to give. Iran seeks assurances that U.S. reentry into the nuclear deal would not be reversed, and sanctions would not be reimposed, by a future administration.

U.S. and European officials are less concerned — partly by necessity — about Iranian presidential elections scheduled for Friday. When the talks began in April, the election was seen as an informal deadline, particularly if a hard-liner emerged victorious.

The Biden administration wants Iran to explicitly agree that the deal would lead to follow-on negotiations over longer and stronger restrictions on its nuclear program, and over its ballistic missile programs, human rights record and alleged support for terrorist groups.

Now, with moderate candidates disqualified by Iran’s clerical leaders, the optimistic assessment has changed to a belief that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the electoral favorite, hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi, will want the massive economic boost of lifted sanctions.

In moves Thursday that it said were not directly related to the nuclear talks, but acknowledged would show U.S. good faith, the administration lifted sanctions on two Iranian companies and three former government officials who were first designated in 2013 by the Obama administration.

The State Department said the measures, which it took along with the Treasury Department, were “a result of a verified change in status or behavior on the part of the sanctioned parties. These actions demonstrate our commitment to lifting sanctions in the event of a change in status or behavior by sanctioned persons.”

All such changes, State Department spokesman Ned Price said without further explanation on the specific cases, are an indication that “one way or another, our policy objectives have been met.”

On Friday, Iran paid the United Nations $16.2 million in delinquent dues after the Treasury Department granted a license for South Korea to release frozen Iranian funds for that purpose. The United Nations said earlier this month that, under its rules, it was suspending voting rights of Iran and four African nations for failure to pay for two years.

In a letter Wednesday to U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the suspension “economic terrorism” and blamed it on U.S. sanctions. South Korea had long indicated it was prepared to release up to $7 billion it has been holding in frozen Iranian money but would do so only after “consultations” with the United States.

At the same time, however, the administration levied new sanctions on a dozen additional Iranian individuals and entities it said were involved in financial support for the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

And the Pentagon, asked whether it would take action against two Iranian naval vessels in the Atlantic and allegedly en route to deliver weapons to Venezuela, said it would consider “the delivery of such weapons . . . a provocative act and a threat to our partners in this hemisphere.”

“As such, we would reserve the right to take appropriate measures — in concert with our partners — to deter the delivery or transit of such weapons,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said.

Administration officials noted that a weapons procurement deal was signed between Iran and Venezuela more than a year ago, and described it as part of the negative fallout from Trump’s shortsighted behavior toward Iran. A decade-long U.N. prohibition banning Iran from conventional weapons trade expired in October, over U.S. objections.

Iranian military officials have said the ships are in the Atlantic to practice “seafaring capability” in rough seas and had no plans to stop at any port.

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