Chief negotiators head home as Iran talks hit critical stage

Official media in the Islamic Republic of Iran said, on Saturday, that top negotiators from Iran and Europe returned to their countries for consultations, as talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal reached a critical stage.

“Negotiators will return to Vienna in two days,” the IRNA news agency said, but discussions at the expert level in the eighth round of talks will continue on Saturday and Sunday.

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Talks between Tehran and world powers resumed in late November after being suspended for nearly five months as Iran elected a new, ultra-conservative government.

Iran has agreed to the nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), with Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.

The Islamic Republic was offered sanctions relief in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

But former US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and imposed severe sanctions, prompting Iran to back away from its commitments.

“We are now in the negotiation stage where we discuss difficult issues and how we can translate the topics that we agreed on in principle into words and enter them into a document,” the official IRNA news agency quoted an anonymous source as saying.

“We are discussing the details,” the source said, adding that “this is one of the most boring, long and difficult parts of the negotiations, but it is absolutely necessary to achieve our goal.”

The main objectives of the negotiations are to persuade the United States to return to the agreement and lift sanctions, and Iran to resume full compliance with the agreement.

Tehran is seeking verification of sanctions relief as well as guarantees that Washington will not withdraw from the deal again.

“Regarding the three topics (lifting sanctions, nuclear commitments, implementation, sequencing and verification), there are still open issues and some of them are difficult,” the source said.

The return of negotiators to their capitals came as Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said on Friday that a deal with Iran was still “possible” and that talks were progressing in a “better atmosphere” than they were before Christmas.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Monday that efforts by “all parties” to revive the nuclear deal had yielded “good progress.”

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian recently noted progress in the talks, but said they were “too slow”.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Thursday that there are only “a few weeks” left to salvage the 2015 deal, and that Washington will consider “other options” if negotiations fail.

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