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US restores Iran sanctions waivers for civilian nuclear activity

The US has agreed to restore sanctions waivers related to Iran’s atomic activity, in what appeared to be a goodwill gesture ahead of crunch talks to save the 2015 nuclear accord designed to prevent the development of nuclear weapons.

As a result of the agreement, Russian, Chinese and European companies could receive waivers from the US to engage in civilian nuclear activities.

The Biden administration’s decision to restore the waivers comes as western diplomats warn that time is running out to save the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that Tehran signed with world powers.

Former president Donald Trump — who pulled the US out of the agreement in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on the republic — revoked the waivers in 2020.

Analysts in Iran and western capitals see the move on waivers as a confidence building measure by the US, which has been in indirect talks with Iran in Vienna since April to resurrect the agreement.

Iran has been demanding more tangible steps, in particular with regard to economic sanctions.

The sanctions waiver would cover some nuclear projects, including the Arak heavy water reactor and Tehran Research Reactor, and allow export of Iran’s spent and scrap research reactor fuel.

Nournews, a news outlet affiliated to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said that the US move was “worthless” because civil nuclear projects were not facing serious obstacles because of sanctions.

What the Biden administration did was “merely a show to decrease the political pressure [exerted by other countries]” on the US “which is responsible for slow progress in the talks by trying to keep the structure of sanctions”.

Iranian diplomats and negotiators from the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China as well as US are expected to return to Vienna to resume the talks after returning to their capitals for consultations last month.

Analysts say the talks in January were more constructive than December, with progress in technical issues. But they say there has been little movement on Iran’s core demands, such as a US guarantee that no future president would withdraw from the deal and that economic sanctions are lifted.

Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian did not directly refer to the restoration of the waivers saying: “what happens on paper is good but is not sufficient”.

He said the Islamic republic had sent messages to Washington through intermediaries that lifting economic sanctions “in the real sense of the word,” would show good will and that Iran sought political, legal and economic guarantees from the Biden administration that no US administration would withdraw from any agreement in the future.

Reuters, which along with other American media has seen the US report, quoted it as saying: “The waiver with respect to these activities is designed to facilitate discussions that would help to close a deal on a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA and lay the groundwork for Iran’s return to performance of its JCPOA commitments.”

“It is also designed to serve US non-proliferation and nuclear safety interests and constrain Iran’s nuclear activities. It is being issued as a matter of policy discretion with these objectives in mind, and not pursuant to a commitment or as part of a quid pro quo.”

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russian representative to the International Atomic Energy Organization in Vienna said that “the US decision to restore ‘nuclear’ waivers is a move in the right direction”.

In a post on Twitter, he added that “It will help expedite restoration of #JCPOA and mutual return of #US and #Iran to compliance with 2015 deal. It also can be seen as an indication that the #ViennaTalks have entered the final stage.”

When the talks paused last month European negotiators said January had been the most intensive period of talks to date. “Everyone knows we are reaching the final stage, which requires political decisions,” they said in a statement. “Negotiators are therefore returning to capitals for consultation.”

A senior US official said this week that the Biden administration was not setting “an artificial deadline” or giving an ultimatum, but said “we are in the final stretch” and “we only have a handful of weeks left to get a deal” given Iran’s nuclear advances.

The official added the message conveyed to Iran was “that it is a significant opportunity, but there is also urgency. And if we don’t move with that urgency, that opportunity will very soon disappear”.

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