US says Iran nuclear deal has made progress but warns ‘gaps’ remain

The US has cautioned that “gaps” remain between Washington and Tehran over a draft agreement to save the 2015 nuclear accord as President Joe Biden’s administration weighs its response to Iran’s latest negotiating position.

Diplomats and analysts have said efforts to revive the deal have made progress after the EU brokered indirect talks between Washington and Tehran in Vienna this month, where they discussed what mediators described as a “final draft” of the agreement.

Iran sent its response to the EU and the US last week. But Biden administration officials said Washington was still preparing its reaction to Iran’s latest position and was consulting with allies about the path forward.

“Gaps still remain, but should we reach an agreement to return to the deal, Iran would have to take many significant steps to dismantle its nuclear programme,” said a senior administration official.

The official added that Tehran had dropped its demand that Washington lift its terrorist designation of the Revolutionary Guards, a powerful arm of the Islamic republic’s security apparatus, which was imposed by former president Donald Trump. US officials said that decision means the two sides have made progress on the deal, but added that the outcome of the diplomatic efforts remains uncertain.

Mohammad Marandi, an adviser to Iran’s negotiating team, responded to US officials’ comments by saying that lifting the designation on the guards had not been a precondition for months.

In a post on social media, he also insisted that the republic’s nuclear programme would not be dismantled.

He added that no deal would be implemented before the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors permanently closes the “false accusations file” — an apparent reference to a historical probe by the UN watchdog into traces of nuclear material at three undeclared sites.

A foreign diplomat briefed on the talks told the Financial Times this week that the main obstacle was a dispute over Iran’s demand that the US guarantee it will continue to receive the economic benefits of sanctions relief even if a future administration withdraws from the deal.

The crisis was triggered by Trump’s decision to unilaterally abandon the deal in 2018 and impose hundreds of sanctions on Iran.

Biden entered office pledging that the US would rejoin the deal and lift many sanctions if Iran, which is enriching uranium at close to weapons-grade levels, returned to compliance with the accord.

But after 16 months of EU-mediated talks, the two sides have still not reached agreement on certain crucial issues.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said this week that Iran’s response to the draft agreement was “reasonable”. On Tuesday, he told Spain’s national broadcaster TVE that Iran had asked for a few adjustments.

But Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at Crisis Group, said Tehran had asked for substantial changes to the draft.

“That’s caused a debate within the administration because they neither can accommodate those demands nor reject them without risking the deal’s collapse. My guess is that they will offer some tweaks, which are bound to fall short of Iran’s expectations,” Vaez said.

“The main dilemma here is if the US offers those tweaks on a text that was supposed to be final, why would Iran believe this is the end, why wouldn’t it ask for more?” he added.

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