US and Iranian officials said initial indirect talks in Vienna on Tuesday aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal were "constructive", with negotiations set to continue this week as US President Joe Biden looks for ways to revive the agreement.
"We do see this as a constructive and certainly welcome step," US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington.
"It is a potentially useful step as we seek to determine what it is that the Iranians are prepared to do to return to compliance with the stringent limitations under the 2015 deal and, as a result, what we might need to do to return to compliance ourselves," he added.
European allies of the United States, along with Russia and China, met in Vienna with representatives of Iran in the most forceful bid yet to revive the Iran nuclear deal after former president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement in May 2018.
Following the closed meetings of the signatories to the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Russian envoy Mikhail Ulyanov tweeted that the initial talks were "successful".
"The restoration of JCPOA will not happen immediately. It will take some time. How long? Nobody knows," he wrote. "The most important thing after today's meeting of the Joint Commission is that practical work towards achieving this goal has started."
Iran has since been steadily violating restrictions set forth in the deal, like the amount of enriched uranium that it can stockpile and the level of purity to which it can be enriched. Tehran's moves have been calculated to pressure other signatories to do more to offset crippling US sanctions reimposed under Trump.
Iran argues that since the US violated the deal first with its withdrawal, Washington should also take the first step by lifting sanctions.
Iranian state television quoted Iran's negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, as echoing US statements in saying the talks were "constructive". But Araghch insisted the US must lift sanctions before Iran makes any concessions.
"Lifting US sanctions is the first and the most necessary action for reviving the deal," he said. "Iran is fully ready to reverse its activities and return to complete implementation of the deal immediately after it is verified sanctions are lifted."
At the meeting, participants agreed to establish two expert-level groups, one to work on the lifting of sanctions and the other to work on nuclear issues.
They are to start work immediately and report their conclusions to the main negotiators.
The ultimate goal of the deal is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, something it insists it doesn't want to do. Iran now has enough enriched uranium to make a bomb but nowhere near the amount it had before the nuclear deal was signed.
In the latest violation, Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for Iran's civilian nuclear programme, said officials had begun mechanical testing of an IR-9 prototype centrifuge. That centrifuge would enrich uranium 50 times faster than the IR-1 that is allowed under the accord, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency.
Clock is ticking
The clock is ticking on trying to get the US back into the deal with the goal of returning Iran to compliance.
In late February, Iran began restricting international inspections of its nuclear facilities. But under a last-minute deal worked out during a trip to Tehran by Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN atomic watchdog, some access was preserved.
Under the agreement, Iran will no longer share surveillance footage of its nuclear facilities with the IAEA but it has promised to preserve the tapes for three months. It will then hand them over to the IAEA if it is granted sanctions relief. Otherwise, Iran has vowed to erase the recordings, narrowing the window for a diplomatic breakthrough.
The small window for negotiation will make it even more difficult for the US to try to bring new concerns into the deal, such as Iran's regional influence and its ballistic missile programme.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)