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Vienna talks offer hope for survival of Iran nuclear deal

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Vienna talks offer hope for survival of Iran nuclear deal
Copyright  AFP PHOTO / EU DELEGATION IN VIENNA / LARS TERNES
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There is hope for the Iran nuclear deal after all.

The United States has returned to the negotiations table after nearly three years of tensions following Donald Trump's dramatic decision to withdraw from the landmark agreement, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The European Union is trying to salvage the deal by acting as chair in the new round of talks taking place in Vienna.

The EU wants all parties to return to full compliance.

Diplomatic envoys from the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and Iran, in addition to EU officials, are meeting in the Austrian capital in search of a breakthrough to convince the US to lift its Trump-era sanctions on Iran.

In exchange, Tehran should limit its nuclear programme according to the terms set in the agreement, which the country has repeatedly violated over the past years. In January, Iran resumed enriching uranium to 20% purity, the highest level since the signature of the text in 2015.

American and Iranian diplomats are not meeting directly. The other parties are shuttling between two different locations in order to conduct the negotiations separately.

Russian representative Mikhail Ulyanov shared on Twitter his feeling of satisfaction following the first expert-level talks in Vienna.

A matter of national interest

The fresh diplomatic impetus follows the arrival of US President Joe Biden to the White House.

The first official step towards rapprochement came in early February when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his counterparts from Germany, France and the United Kingdom (known as E3) that the United States was ready to resume dialogue and restore the deal.

"The E3 and the United States expressed their shared fundamental security interest in upholding the nuclear non-proliferation regime and ensuring that Iran can never develop a nuclear weapon. In this context, the conclusion of the JCPOA was a key achievement of multilateral diplomacy," a statement from the virtual encounter said.

Soon after, the US accepted a formal invitation from Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign affairs chief, to re-engage in negotiations.

"Joe Biden is focused on the domestic American economy, on getting us back on our own feet after COVID-19. And the last thing he wants is a nuclear crisis with Iran. So I think it's a high priority for him," Barbara Slavin, director of the future of Iran initiative at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, told Euronews.

In Tehran, change could also be on its way. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will step down in two months after more than seven years in power. Rouhani is frequently described as a moderate politician, although he has overseen the gradual enrichment of uranium.

According to recent polls, there is a strong possibility that the hard-line faction, which opposes the JCPOA, could win the presidential elections in June. But due to the severity of the economic crisis, putting an end to US sanctions appears to be a matter of national interest.

"This is an important agreement for Iran, and I think it transcends the factions. The supreme leader [Ali Khamenei]was not enthusiastic about it, but gave his support, which means that it's not something that so-called hardliners can jeopardise," added Slavin.

"The question is whether both sides can get back to full compliance before the Iranian elections. And that might be a little bit tight. After all, we just have a few months,"

'Red carpet for American diplomacy'

All eyes are now on the American envoys, who will be the ones deciding whether the deal can see another day.

But this time, China too could play a crucial role in the talks.

Last month, The New York Times reported that Beijing had signed a deal to invest $400 billion in Iran over the next 25 years in exchange for a steady supply of oil.

The economic and security agreement is designed to help China deepen its growing influence in the Middle East. However, its chances of success will greatly depend on the easing of US sanctions, which have crippled the Iranian economy.

"It is a red carpet for American diplomacy. Indeed, the role of leadership is always offered to the Americans," said Majid Golpour, a senior research associate at the Free University of Brussels (VUB).

"But we also have the surprising element of this negotiation. China, with this display of power, has somehow forced [Iranian negotiator] Abbas Araghchi to join this meeting."

The European Union is also feeling the high stakes of the moment.

Even during the tumultuous years of the Trump presidency, where long-held diplomatic norms and traditions were systematically broken, EU officials tried to keep the JCPOA alive. Iran directly challenged EU countries to preserve business relations, which were then threatened by the US sanctions system.

But the bloc was unable to fully circumvent the weight of its American peers. Brussels quickly realised that only a new White House tenant could bring diplomatic relations back to a degree of normalcy and stability, proving, once again, how reliant EU diplomacy is on US participation.

"We are in a kind of thousand sheets of negotiations. The strategic sovereignty, that the EU likes so much, is being tested," says Golpour.

"Today is the best time for EU High Commissioner Josep Borell to show European leadership, not only for the JCPOA but also for the region."