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European nations warn time is running out to save Iran nuclear deal

Andrew England in London and Henry Foy in Brussels

The UK, France and Germany have accused Iran’s hardline government of reneging on agreements they reached with the Islamic republic to revive the 2015 nuclear deal and delivered their starkest warning yet that time is running out to save the accord.

After Iranian negotiators submitted new proposals this week at talks designed to prevent the deal’s total collapse, diplomats from the three European signatories to the accord said Tehran was “walking back almost all of the difficult compromises crafted” at previous rounds of talks.

The three senior diplomats warned that it was “unclear how these new gaps can be closed in a realistic timeframe on the basis of Iranian drafts”, adding that “major changes” were demanded.

“Our governments remain fully committed to a diplomatic way forward,” they said in a joint statement. “But time is running out.”

Iran resumed EU-brokered talks in Vienna this week with the E3, China and Russia — two other signatories — that are aimed at securing an agreement that leads to the US rejoining the deal that former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from in 2018. A US delegation is in the Austrian capital, but only indirectly involved in the negotiations.

This week’s talks were the first since President Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric and protégé of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, won elections in June, putting regime hardliners in control over all arms of the state for the first time in almost a decade.

Raisi has said he is committed to the talks, but his government has hardened Tehran’s stance, including its insistence that all sanctions — including those predating Trump’s presidency — are lifted and that the US guarantees that no American president is able to unilaterally withdraw from the deal in the future.

The previous rounds of talks in the first half of the year began after US President Joe Biden entered the White House pledging that his administration would rejoin the deal and lift many sanctions if Tehran fell back into full compliance with the accord.

But those negotiations took place when President Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist who was a staunch supporter of the accord he helped broker, was in power. Although all key decisions are ultimately decided by Khamenei, Rouhani attempted to push back against hardliners critical of the deal and resistant to engagement with the west.

In the months since the last round of talks in June, Tehran has continued to expand its nuclear activity and it is enriching uranium at its highest ever levels, which are close to weapons grade.

That has heightened concerns about Iran’s intentions and exacerbated fears that it will become impossible to save the deal that was deemed critical to preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

A member of the Iranian delegation at the talks in Vienna denied the Europeans’ claim that Tehran had reneged on already-agreed compromises, saying that previous texts were considered by all sides to only be draft agreements.

Western negotiators have offered no promises on lifting sanctions on Tehran, the person added.

The European diplomats said they would return to their capitals to seek instructions from their governments before the talks resume next week.

Speaking after the talks were adjourned on Friday evening, senior EU diplomat Enrique Mora who chairs the talks, said there were “substantial challenges” ahead and “time is limited.”

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SAKHRI Mohamed

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