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VIENNA – Negotiators trying to bring the United States and Tehran back into line with the Iran nuclear deal are making progress, officials say, with some even saying the talks have come halfway.

But the talks remain fragile and will not be completed in the current round of talks; diplomats are expected to take a break after Tuesday’s talks before meeting again next week. Specifically, officials are negotiating on how to restore the original deal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – by curbing Iran’s nuclear program and preventing the regime from making a bomb, in return for state sanctions lifting. -United.

It involves negotiating how Iran could get rid of its excess nuclear material or what to do with advanced centrifuges, machines used to enrich uranium gas. And they are debating what sanctions the United States could withdraw from the series of sanctions it imposed as part of the 2015 deal, as well as under the Trump administration.

A diplomat familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that in recent days the negotiations had “picked up speed” and had reached “about half”. The person predicted that an agreement could emerge after “one or two more rounds of negotiations” in Vienna.

The assessment followed the latest update from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who said Tuesday that “talks in Vienna have progressed by around 60 to 70 percent”, saying results could come “in a short time”. But he also stressed that a deal would only work “if the Americans act with honesty” – a message likely intended to satisfy Iranian extremists.

The signals, while positive, do little to guarantee success. Iran is still uneasy about what it claims was an Israeli attack on its main nuclear facility at Natanz in early April. And there is pressure in the United States on President Joe Biden to maintain some of the recent economic restrictions on Iran – a position that Tehran, at least publicly, declares unacceptable.

Moreover, the two sides did not come to an agreement on how to sequence their respective steps. Does the United States lift the sanctions first? Or does Iran first unwind its nuclear progress? Can they somehow do it in tandem?

On top of that, the United States and Iran have yet to directly engage. They still use European diplomats as intermediaries.

“Progress has been made over the past two weeks,” tweeted Enrique Mora, a senior EU official overseeing the talks, on Tuesday, but added: “A lot more work was needed.”

Ned Price, spokesman for the US State Department, was more cautious Tuesday in his assessment of the talks, calling them “commercial” and “positive.” Yet he acknowledged that “some progress” had been made.

“We have more road ahead of us than behind us,” he said.

A little more clarity

The Joint Commission, responsible for overseeing the implementation of the nuclear deal, met on Tuesday to resume its plenary meeting at the five-star Grand Hotel in Vienna.

Across the road, a small group of protesters called on the Iranian regime to release all political prisoners, chanting, “Free them, free them”.

The Joint Commission meeting comes after eight days of intensive consultations between diplomats from Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – the other parties to the deal – and the United States .

Iran still refuses to speak directly with the United States, forcing European officials to commute between the two sides. This meant that the negotiations involved “a lot of coordination,” as another diplomat put it during the talks.

European diplomats must first create an understanding between themselves, then coordinate with China, Russia and Iran, then transmit proposals through the Ringstrasse to the American delegation which has settled in the Imperial Hotel.

The first diplomatic source said progress had been made in identifying the various steps the United States and Iran needed to take to restore the deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

For example, diplomats are discussing the possibility of Iran selling or diluting the surplus nuclear material it has acquired since leaving the original agreement.

Iran recently began enriching uranium to 60% purity in response to the Natanz incident, a huge leap that brought it closer to the 90% threshold needed to build an atomic bomb. Under the nuclear deal, Iran is only allowed to enrich uranium to a purity of 3.67%.

In addition, both sides have a better understanding of the sanctions the United States could lift.

Iran wants the United States to lift all sanctions first, including those canceled as part of the original 2015 deal, as well as any additional non-nuclear restrictions imposed by the Trump administration after 2017. These Sanctions were far-reaching and included an Iranian blacklist. Central bank and other companies for suspected terrorist financing.

Most experts believe that the United States will want to retain at least some of these non-nuclear sanctions, given domestic political pressure, and maintain its influence for possible follow-up talks with Iran on the containment of its program. ballistic missiles or its destabilizing behavior. In the region.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said that “Iran, while speaking harshly publicly, will realize that it will need to be more pragmatic about the non-nuclear sanctions imposed since 2017 that should be lifted. “

But the order of steps the United States and Iran must take is still unclear. To move forward in this area, the Joint Commission set up a task force on Tuesday to develop a detailed plan.

The clock is turning

Even as both sides move forward, deadlines are looming.

Iran has a presidential election on June 18, giving hope for the emergence of a more radical leader.

Another important deadline is May 22, when a temporary inspection agreement between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expires.

Under the agreement, data collected by IAEA cameras inside Iran’s nuclear power plants will be kept exclusively by Iran for three months. If no return to the deal is negotiated by then, Iran has threatened to destroy the data, making it impossible for IAEA inspectors to verify any political agreement.

The negotiators have therefore already agreed to resume their meetings in Vienna next week.

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