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US, Iran to continue sanctions relief talks after ‘constructive’ week in Vienna

The US, Iran and remaining signatories of the nuclear deal will resume talks April 14 in Vienna, Iranian officials said, as the parties seek to negotiate a pathway for the removal of sanctions on Tehran’s oil sector.

Source: S&P Global Platts

Extensive technical and expert consultations will be held when they reconvene to develop a list of measures the US and Iran should take, said Iranian delegation chief Abbas Araghchi on April 9, after a week of diplomatic meetings in the Austrian capital.

Iran has insisted that the US drop all the sanctions it unilaterally imposed after withdrawing from the deal in 2018, while US officials have maintained that Iranian nuclear violations of the agreement must be rectified first.

“Cancellation of all the US sanctions imposed in the era of the previous president is the necessary step to revive the JCPOA,” Araghchi said, referring to the deal by its acronym, according to the official IRNA news agency. “Only after verification of these sanctions’ [removal] will Iran be ready to … return to the full implementation of the JCPOA.”

“The US team put forward serious ideas, demonstrated seriousness of purpose on coming back into compliance if Iran does,” a senior US State Department official said April 9. “We are prepared to lift those sanctions consistent with the JCPOA if they come into compliance.”

The US official added, “We are not going to pay a price to sit down with the Iranians,” noting the US reserves the right to maintain sanctions imposed for Iran’s non-nuclear activities, including terrorism.

The JCPOA sanctions, which heavily penalize buyers of Iranian oil and blacklist them from the US financial system, have caused Iran’s crude production to plummet.

Iran pumped 2.30 million b/d of crude in March, according to the latest S&P Global Platts survey of OPEC production. That is up from 30-year lows of 1.90 million b/d last summer, but still far shy of the nearly 4 million b/d it produced prior to the sanctions.

The parties to the deal agreed on April 6 to set up two parallel working groups; one to work out the conditions under which the US would formally reenter the pact and lift its sanctions, and another to negotiate how Iran will bring its nuclear program back in compliance with the parameters of the agreement.

Officials said the negotiations also are covering what measures can be imposed if any party subsequently breaks the deal once it is reinstated.

Accessing banks

Ned Price, the US State Department’s press secretary, characterized the week of talks so far as “constructive” and “business-like,” but cautioned that achieving a breakthrough could take time, given both sides’ insistence that the other take the first step.

“It’ll be hard because the subject at hand is very technical,” Price said April 8 in a briefing with reporters. “And it will be hard, of course, because there is no insignificant degree of distrust between the US and Iran.”

In addition to the nuclear-related sanctions on Iranian oil sales, Iranian officials have pushed for all US sanctions to be lifted, including banking restrictions that make it difficult for Tehran to access its oil revenues.

Iran should be able to make “oil sales and export its oil and transfer the funds through banking channels into the country or use it in other ways,” said Kazem Gharibabadi, the country’s permanent representative to the UN in Vienna, state television reported.

US officials have said that for now, they want to focus the negotiations on only the nuclear sanctions.

The Vienna meetings have taken place without the US and Iran directly interacting. The Joint Commission of the JCPOA, comprised of the UK, France, China, Russia and Germany, chaired by the EU, has met separately with the US and Iran in different buildings.

The commission said in a statement that “the participants emphasized their resolve to further pursue the ongoing joint diplomatic effort.”

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