By Robin Emmott and Philip Blenkinsop
LUXEMBOURG -The European Union on Monday played down the prospect of serious talks on Iran’s nuclear programme outside the framework of negotiations between world powers and Iran in Vienna, with the EU’s foreign policy chief saying time was not on Iran’s side.
A senior EU official said last week Iran was not ready yet to return to actual talks with world powers over reviving its 2015 nuclear programme and related U.S. sanctions but could discuss with the EU in Brussels texts from when negotiations ended in June.
Contradictory reports in Iranian media on Sunday had suggested a possible meeting on Thursday in Brussels.
After initially suggesting optimism that preparatory talks in the Belgian capital could take place soon, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Monday evening that there was nothing concrete and definitely no discussions on Thursday.
He said he was open to clarifying Iranian doubts about the Vienna talks in any format, but that serious talks would happen in the Austrian capital. He said Iranian officials had requested bilateral meetings with him and other parties to the deal, although the wish was not “precise”.
“We made it clear to the Iranians that time is not on their side and it’s better to go back to the negotiating table quickly,” he said.
Western diplomats have said they are concerned Tehran’s new negotiating team – under a president known as an anti-Western hardliner rather than a pragmatist like his predecessor – may make demands beyond the scope of what had already been agreed.
Some also fear Iran is seeking to gain time and leverage by talking to the EU, which coordinates the talks, rather than all the parties to the deal – France, Britain, Germany, Russia, China and indirectly the United States.
Iran has long denied any ambition to acquire nuclear weapons and accused the United States of unfair treatment.
EU political director Enrique Mora, the chief coordinator, was in Tehran on Thursday to meet Iran’s new nuclear negotiating team, four months after talks broke off between Iran and world powers as Ebrahim Raisi was elected Iranian president.
The Iranian establishment has so far refused to resume indirect talks with the United States in Vienna on both sides returning to compliance with the deal, under which Iran curbed its nuclear program in return for economic sanctions relief.
The deal effectively fell apart after former U.S. President Donald Trump re-imposed sanctions on Iran in 2018 and Tehran resumed building its stockpile of enriched uranium.
Hinting at frustration in Paris, Foreign ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre told reporters that France had not been informed of any meeting in Brussels later this week and insisted that any such meeting could not be instead of negotiations in Vienna.
“These exchanges cannot replace the negotiations in Vienna with the other participants in the JCPoA and the United States,” she told reporters, referring to the acronym for the 2015 deal.
“These negotiations were halted at Tehran’s request four months ago now, and Iran has yet to commit to a date for their resumption.”