DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (AP) – Negotiations aimed at restoring Iran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers went on what its European hosts described as “a pause” on Friday, after Russia demanded relief from sanctions targetting Moscow over its war on Ukraine.
Diplomats offered no timetable for when the monthslong talks in Vienna would resume.
Negotiators even on Friday maintained that a roadmap was near for how the United States (US) could rejoin the accord it unilaterally withdrew from in 2018, and for Iran to again limit its rapidly advancing nuclear programme.
While the European Union’s (EU) Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell only referred to “external factors” forcing the pausing, it appeared the Russian demand caused the disruption.
“The real issue for this pause here is what Russia has thrown on the table, which is essentially a grenade in the middle of the negotiations,” said deputy head of research at the Eurasia Group Henry Rome, who has been following the talks.
Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he wanted “guarantees at least at the level of the secretary of state” that the US sanctions would not affect Moscow’s relationship with Tehran.
While American officials sought to describe the demand as not related to the Vienna talks, matters swiftly stalled on Friday with a tweet from Borrell.
“A pause in #ViennaTalks is needed, due to external factors. A final text is essentially ready and on the table,” Borrell wrote. “As coordinator, I will, with my team, continue to be in touch with all #JCPOA participants and the US to overcome the current situation and to close the agreement.”
The JCPOA, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is the formal name of the 2015 deal that saw Iran limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
EU negotiator Enrique Mora met on Friday with Iranian officials before telling journalists that “we are almost there” with the talks.
“Almost everything is done,” Mora said. “We are almost at the limit of negotiating footnotes.”
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said the pause “could be a momentum for resolving any remaining issue” ahead of restoring the deal.
“Successful conclusion of talks will be the main focus of all,” he wrote on Twitter. “No external factor will affect our joint will to go forward for a collective agreement.”
However, Russian Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov, speaking to journalists outside of the Vienna hotel where the talks took place, insisted: “I’m not aware of any impasse.”
“Contacts will continue,” he said. “The conclusion of the deal does not depend on Russia only.”
Chinese Ambassador Wang Qun said negotiators “regret the pause” and added, “as we know, negotiation cannot be conducted in a political vacuum”.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said it was key for the negotiation that there are “no attempts from outside to undo the success of these talks”.
“For me it is very clear that it is also the job of powers such as Russia or China that they support these results constructively,” Scholz said.
The 2015 nuclear deal saw Iran put advanced centrifuges into storage under the watch of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), while keeping its enrichment at 3.67 per cent purity and its stockpile at only 300 kilogrammes of uranium. It also halted enrichment at its underground Fordo nuclear facility.
As of February 19, the IAEA said Iran’s stockpile of all enriched uranium was nearly 3,200 kilogramme. Some has been enriched up to 60 per cent purity – a short technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90 per cent.
Meanwhile, Iran has stopped the IAEA from accessing its surveillance camera footage and has resumed enrichment at Fordo.