Russian demands leave Iran talks in limbo as talks stall

(Adds US State Department comment, paragraphs 12-13)

VIENNA, March 11 (Reuters) – Talks to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal on Friday risked collapsing after a last-minute Russian demand forced world powers to suspend talks indefinitely despite a largely finished text.

Negotiators reached the final stages of 11 months of talks to reinstate the deal, which lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, long seen by the West as a cover to develop atomic bombs .

But last Saturday Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov unexpectedly demanded sweeping guarantees that Russian trade with Iran would not be affected by sanctions imposed on Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine – a demand which Western powers find unacceptable and which Washington has insisted it will not accept.

A failure of the talks could bring Tehran closer to developing nuclear weapons, a prospect that could trigger a new war in the Middle East. Tehran denies ever researching atomic bombs.

Failure to reach a deal could also prompt the West to impose tough new sanctions on Iran and further drive up global oil prices already strained by the Ukraine conflict.

“A pause in #ViennaTalks is necessary, due to external factors,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote on Twitter. “A final text is essentially ready and on the table.”

Tehran hinted on Thursday that there were new obstacles to reviving the deal. Washington has stressed that it has no intention of meeting Russia’s demands, which it says have nothing to do with talks with Iran.

A week ago, preparations were underway in Vienna for a weekend meeting aimed at reaching a deal bringing Iran back into compliance with the agreement’s restrictions on its rapidly advancing nuclear activities and bringing the United States back United in the deal they left in 2018 by reimposing sanctions. on Tehran.

Officials said they hoped the talks would resume in the coming days. A senior EU official said there were still two or three technical issues to be resolved between Washington and Tehran, but these could be resolved quickly.

The official said talks had to be put on hold to get a response from Moscow after being told its demands, which went beyond its nuclear commitments, could not be met.

“They are considering this reaction and in the meantime we cannot move forward in the sense that we cannot finalize the negotiation,” the official said.

The US State Department said negotiating teams, including the US team led by special envoy Robert Malley, were returning to their capitals for consultations.

“Decisions will have to be made in places like Tehran and Moscow,” department spokesman Ned Price told reporters at a briefing. “If that political will is there, if that seriousness is there, we remain convinced that we can achieve a mutual return to compliance in a fairly short time.

Western officials say there is a common interest in averting a nuclear non-proliferation crisis and that they have so far been on the same page as Moscow, one of the main participants in the nuclear deal. 2015, which was approved by a UN Security Council resolution. All powers negotiating with Iran, with the exception of Germany, are permanent members of the Council.

An E3 diplomat ruled out negotiating with Russia a “broad exemption that would be extraneous” to the nuclear deal, adding that if Moscow permanently blocks the deal, other world powers should explore alternative options.

Accusing Russia of holding Iran nuclear talks hostage, the diplomat said there was “critical urgency” to get the deal done as other external factors could also threaten it.

Bilateral talks between Iran, Russia and China are expected to take place to try to break the deadlock, diplomats have said.

“External factors must be resolved in the coming days or a deal risks unraveling,” British envoy Stephanie al-Qaq wrote on Twitter.

NEGOTIATION FOOTNOTES

Russia’s envoy to the talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, dismissed suggestions that Moscow was the reason the talks stalled.

“The conclusion of the agreement does not depend solely on Russia,” he told reporters after meeting with EU coordinator Enrique Mora. “There are other players who need more time and have additional concerns, and they are being discussed.”

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said a pause in the talks could create momentum to resolve outstanding issues, but he insisted that external factors would not affect the willingness to move forward with a collective agreement.

Appearing to support Moscow, Chinese envoy Wang Qun said the negotiations could not be conducted in a “political vacuum” and that the demands of all parties should be taken into account.

Russia’s request initially angered Tehran and appeared to help it and Washington move toward agreement on the few remaining thorny issues, diplomats said. But a sudden flurry of public comments from Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, suggested on Thursday that the tide had turned.

Negotiators from France, Britain and Germany left a week ago, believing they had gone as far as they could and that it was now up to the United States and Iran to agree on outstanding issues.

“We are at the footnote level of the negotiations,” the EU official said. He said issues such as which sanctions the United States would lift had been agreed upon, although how they would be lifted was still under discussion.

Negotiations in Vienna limped off with only a fraction of the number of daily meetings that had taken place in previous weeks. Four Western diplomats had said the talks were almost finalized until Russia made its demands.

“I think there’s still a clear path to reinvigorate the deal given that the United States and Iran seem to be on the same page,” said Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the consultancy. Eurasia.

“But it will take a fair amount of creativity and flexibility from all parties to find a way to work with, or more likely around, Moscow.” (Additional reporting by Simon Lewis in Washington; editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and William Maclean)

Shirlene J. Manley