Iran nuclear meeting ‘constructive’ but ends without solutions

Tensions high in wake of US sanctions and seizures of oil tankers

Helga Schmid (front left) of the European Union External Action Service with Abbas Araghchi (front right), political deputy at the ministry of foreign affairs of Iran, at the Palais Coburg in Vienna. Photograph: Alex Halada

Helga Schmid (front left) of the European Union External Action Service with Abbas Araghchi (front right), political deputy at the ministry of foreign affairs of Iran, at the Palais Coburg in Vienna. Photograph: Alex Halada

 

An emergency meeting in Vienna between Iran and five remaining signatories of the 2015 nuclear agreement has failed to resolve outstanding issues.

Iranian deputy foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi said that “the atmosphere was constructive, and the discussions were good. I cannot say that we resolved everything. I can say there are lots of commitments.”

At the weekend, Araghchi met representatives of Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany, all of which so far remain determined to honour the deal despite the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal and reimposition of punitive sanctions.

The nuclear accord provides for the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear stockpile in exchange for international sanctions relief. Since the US reinstated sanctions and adopted a policy of exerting “maximum pressure” on Iran to force it to capitulate to US demands, Iranian oil exports have fallen by 90 per cent, the country’s currency has lost value, and the economy has contracted.

Iran has responded by exceeding the limit set for its stockpile of enriched uranium and slightly increased its level of enrichment. Iran intends to reopen its Arak heavy water plant, which can produce plutonium, a fuel used in nuclear weapons.

Trade mechanism

Iran seeks to use phased breaches of provisions to pressurise remaining signatories to defy US sanctions. Iranian officials say their moves are “reversible” once the deal’s defenders meet their commitments.

While China continues to import Iranian oil, Britain, France and Germany have established a mechanism to facilitate trade in food and medicine between Iran and non-US firms, but they remain fearful of US penalties if they access the mechanism.

These gestures have not restored the benefits brought about by the 2015 deal, which enabled Iran to export 2.5 million barrels a day as well as gold and other metals before US sanctions were imposed in May 2018.

Araghchi also linked the survival of the nuclear deal to the seizure by Britain of a supertanker with a cargo of Iranian crude off Gibraltar. He argued such actions are in breach of the deal.

Strait of Hormuz

“Countries party to the [deal] must not create any obstacles in the way of Iran exporting its oil,” he said. Iran retaliated by impounding a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz and proposed a swap. Britain has rejected this option.

Blocked from exporting its oil, Iran has denounced Britain’s proposal for a European naval mission to protect foreign tanker passage through the Strait of Hormuz. “The presence of foreign forces will not only not help the security of the region, but will be the main factor for tension,” Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said.

Iran fears both intended escalation by Trump administration hardliners and accidents. During a naval build-up in 1987-1988 towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Iranians were traumatised when a US warship, USS Vincennes, shot down an Iranian airbus flying from Bandar Abbas in Iran to Dubai, killing 290 passengers and crew.

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