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U.S. and Iran set to begin indirect talks on reviving nuclear deal in Vienna

Instead, diplomats from European countries will act as intermediaries as the U.S. and Iranian delegations.

During an initial meeting between Iranian officials and representatives of China, Russia, Britain, Germany and France in Vienna’s historic Grand Hotel, delegates said they had agreed to try to find measures that could be taken by both sides to return to compliance.

As that process goes on, Enrique Mora, the European coordinator for the talks, tweeted that he would “intensify separate contacts” with all relevant parties, including the United States.

For the United States and others, the core issue is having Iran scale back its uranium enrichment to levels outlined in the nuclear deal. Iran wants an end to sanctions placed by the Trump administration after withdrawing from the accord in 2018.

The Vienna gathering is what Thomas Countryman, former acting undersecretary of state for arms control under the Obama administration, called a creative effort in “shuttle-down-the-hall-diplomacy.”

“It won’t be easy, but we are past the procedural roadblock,” he said on a call with journalists ahead of the meetings.

The U.S. delegation remains at a separate hotel in the Austrian capital.

The Trump administration walked away from the deal — designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program — and imposed hundreds of sanctions and restrictions that are expected to complicate U.S. efforts to return to compliance.

Iran complained it could not reap the economic benefits of the deal as promised, and it gradually breached its commitments, notably by ramping up uranium-enrichment levels and limiting inspections.

Backers of the deal see an urgency to get it back on track: the dwindling breakout time before Iran is expected to be able to produce enough fissile material for a potential nuclear weapon, alongside approaching elections in Iran that may usher in a more hard-line government less inclined toward diplomacy. Iran has said for decades it does not want nuclear weapons and seeks enrichment uranium for reactors.

The talks are an important goal for Biden, who campaigned on a pledge to return to the agreement. But the timing and structure of the meetings represent a disappointment for those who hoped for a quick and muscular U.S. engagement with Iran.

Approaching three months in office, Biden has not made any bold gesture to rejoin the deal, and the United States and Iran remain publicly at odds. Biden rarely mentions the deal unless asked about it directly.

The back-burner approach stands in contrast to Biden’s fast pace in offering legislation and initiatives to address domestic priorities, including blunting the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout.

Biden’s advisers also appear split about whether rejoining the deal is the best way to contain Iran’s nuclear program, especially since some of its 2015 provisions begin to expire soon. Biden has said he wants to leverage the existing deal to get a broader and stronger agreement, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken and others have not ruled out other options.

Iran has pushed back at suggestions of renegotiation or expansion, insisting that Washington instead return to the deal it signed.

Speaking to reporters in Tehran on Tuesday, Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei said Iran is “not optimistic or pessimistic” about the outcome of the talks.

“But we are confident that we are on the right track,” he said. “And if America’s will, seriousness and honesty is proven, it could be a good sign for a better future for this agreement and ultimately its full implementation.”

The United States, he added, “is finally confessing that maximum pressure has failed and there is no other way than the return of all sides to their commitments.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki urged patience when asked whether Biden is disappointed that talks have not come faster and are not face-to-face.

“Diplomacy can take time, and sometimes it is not at the pace that everyone would prefer,” she said Monday. “And we certainly have experience, as does he — from having been in the Obama-Biden administration — of the time it took to work through a diplomatic process.”

Psaki would not predict how long the talks would run or whether they can be concluded ahead of elections in Iran in June that may change the landscape for Iranian participation. Biden’s special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, will lead the U.S. delegation.

The Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) reported that Tehran’s delegation was led by Abbas Araghchi, the country’s deputy foreign minister, and includes representatives of Iran’s Central Bank, the oil ministry and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. Amid “intensive consultations” with other delegations, Araghchi met with Chinese representatives Monday and with Russian and European negotiators early Tuesday, the news agency said.

The indirect structure, with European powers serving as go-betweens, “is still, in our view, a step forward toward diplomacy, and that remains our first objective,” Psaki said.

Biden has not budged from a hard public line that Iran must stop nuclear activities that violate the deal before the United States would drop sanctions that Trump reimposed. Iran has insisted that Washington should be the first to move and drop its sanctions.

The agenda of the meetings is “the removal of all U.S. cruel sanctions,” Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said at his weekly news briefing Monday, according to Iran’s Press TV. “The path is clear,” he said, adding that only then would Iran return to its commitments.

But European diplomats say they will negotiate a list of moves for each side in parallel, to overcome the arguments over which side acts first. The plan is for Tehran and Washington to then implement the steps in coordination.

In their initial meeting Tuesday, two expert groups were formed to identify “concrete measures to be taken by Washington and Tehran to restore full implementation of the JCPOA,” Russian ambassador to Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov tweeted. But the process is expected to be a slow one.

“We certainly expect that the primary issues that will be discussed over the course of the coming days are the nuclear steps that Iran would need to take to return to compliance with the terms of the [nuclear deal] and the sanctions relief steps that the United States would need to take to return to compliance, as well,” Psaki said.

Sometimes-overlapping layers of economic sanctions brought in during the Trump administration’s shift to a campaign of “maximum pressure” on Tehran make the task ahead particularly complex.

“Both Trump administration officials and the regime-change lobby here in Washington were and still are very explicit that the purpose was to make it as difficult as possible for a successor administration to remove sanctions — to make it difficult both bureaucratically and politically,” said Countryman, the former Obama administration official.

State Department spokesman Ned Price also played down expectations for a swift breakthrough.

“We don’t underestimate the scale of the challenges ahead. These are early days. We don’t anticipate an early or immediate breakthrough, as these discussions we fully expect will be difficult. But we do believe that these discussions with our partners and, in turn, our partners with Iran is a healthy step forward,” he said.

Gearan reported from Washington and Fahim from Istanbul.

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