Dubai (Reuters) – Tehran on Thursday suggested there were new obstacles to an agreement on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal just as Western powers were grappling with last-minute Russian demands that threatened to torpedo otherwise largely completed talks.
A week ago preparations were being made in Vienna for a weekend meeting to conclude an agreement bringing Iran back into compliance with the deal’s restrictions on its rapidly advancing nuclear activities and bringing the United States back into the accord it left in 2018 by re-imposing sanctions on Tehran.
Then last Saturday Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov unexpectedly demanded sweeping guarantees that Russian trade with Iran would not be affected by sanctions imposed on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine – a demand Western powers say is unacceptable and Washington has insisted it will not entertain.
Russia’s demand initially angered Tehran and appeared to help it and Washington move towards agreement on the few remaining thorny issues, diplomats said, but a sudden volley of public comments by Iranian officials including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Thursday suggested the wind had turned.
“US approach to Iran’s principled demands, coupled with its unreasonable offers and unjustified pressure to hastily reach an agreement, show that US isn’t interested in a strong deal that would satisfy both parties,” Khamenei’s top security official Ali Shamkhani said in English on Twitter on Thursday morning.
“Absent US political decision, the talks get knottier by the hour,” said Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.
Shamkhani did not specify what the demands were but that there were any at all contradicted what four Western officials had said – that a final draft text had been agreed which only needed minor adjustments with the exception of the open question about Russia’s sweeping demand for guarantees.
The text does, however, include a similar but much narrower guarantee covering nuclear cooperation between Russia and Iran outlined in the agreement, diplomats said.
An Iranian official said on Thursday there were still two to three difficult questions to resolve and that Tehran was now also demanding a change in the sequencing of how an accord should be implemented.
He said Iran wanted the issuing of oil sanctions waivers to be brought forwards to the start of the timeline and for Tehran then to verify the move by exporting oil and getting petrodollars via the banking system – a radical shift of a key step in a carefully negotiated sequence of events.
Khamenei himself, who has the final word on nuclear matters, made firm but relatively vague comments on the negotiations that were quoted by state media on Thursday.
“Scientific progress in the nuclear field is related to our future needs, and if we give that up, will anyone help us in the future?” he said.
Iran has also said it wants guarantees that no future U.S. president will again abandon a nuclear deal.
Underscoring Iranian concerns, former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Wednesday that should Washington agree a new accord and were the Republicans to take power again, they would “rip up any new Iran Nuclear Deal on day one.”
European negotiators from France, Britain, and Germany have temporarily left the talks as they believed they had gone as far as they could and it was now up to the United States and Iran to agree on outstanding issues.
Negotiations in Vienna have limped on with just a fraction of the number of daily meetings that were taking place in previous weeks.
The talks’ coordinator, Enrique Mora of the European Union, met Iran’s chief negotiator Ali Bagheri on Thursday after meetings with Russia’s chief envoy Mikhail Ulyanov on Tuesday and Wednesday.
With few signs of progress, France expressed the impatience of Western powers, which have long warned that time is running out because Iran’s nuclear progress will soon have made the original deal’s restrictions redundant.
“We are very close to an agreement, but the window of opportunity is closing,” French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre told reporters in a daily briefing.