Iran nuclear talks progress slowly as timeline dwindles

Both sides indicate they want to revive the 2015 pact — but there's little agreement over how to get there with only weeks left before a critical Iranian election.

Iran nuclear talks progress slowly as timeline dwindles

VIENNA — It might be now or never if the Iran nuclear deal is to survive. 

U.S. and Iranian negotiators on Friday started their fourth round of talks in Vienna, expressing a mutual desire to revive the 2015 pact — under which the U.S. repealed sanctions in exchange for Iran limiting its nuclear program — but little agreement over how to get there. 

Despite weeks of discussions, the two sides are stuck on which sanctions the U.S. should roll back this time around. And they disagree over what to do about Iran’s nuclear advances since 2018, when U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the original deal.

Meanwhile, looming over the talks is the Iranian election on June 18, which could bring deal-skeptic hardliners to power and scuttle the effort altogether.

With that date in mind, it’s expected the current round of talks will continue through at least this week — a likely attempt to keep things plodding forward as the timeline shrinks. 

“I feel a sense of urgency. Time is not on our side,” tweeted Enrique Mora, a senior EU official overseeing the talks, on Saturday. 

“Once a new Iranian leadership is in place, things could become much more difficult,” one diplomat working on the Vienna talks said in an interview.

“The goal of this fourth round is for us to come up with a consolidated text that includes the basic elements of a deal,” the diplomat added. “This is a very ambitious goal and there is of course no guarantee that we will achieve it.”

The stakes are high. The outcome of the talks will determine the future of Iran’s nuclear program and whether Iran can be prevented from having the capacity to build a bomb. It will also inevitably have spill-over effects for the dynamics between the U.S. and Israel, which opposes the nuclear deal as insufficient, and Iran’s relationship with European powers, which want to see the deal revived.

“I dare to say that I’m optimistic,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said at a press conference on Monday. “There’s a window of opportunity that will stay open for a couple of weeks, until the end of the month, but a lot of work is needed, time is limited and I hope that negotiations will enter in a phase of non-stop in Vienna.”

Talking, without talking

In Vienna, U.S. and Iranian officials have been joined by representatives from the other remaining parties to the 2015 accord — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia. 

The group has gone through three rounds of discussions already, with intermittent signs of progress. After the most recent session ended last week, the European diplomats expressed some frustration at the slow pace. 

“We have much work, and little time left,” the representatives from Britain, France and Germany said in a joint statement. “Against this background, we would have hoped for more progress.” 

One major challenge is the indirect talks. Iran still refuses to negotiate directly with the U.S., forcing European diplomats to shuttle between the U.S. and Iranian delegations, located in separate luxury hotels along Vienna’s historic Ringstrasse.

While the process is cumbersome, the delegations are essentially stuck in their hotels, as bars and restaurants are still closed under Vienna’s COVID restrictions. Instead, the delegates are reportedly surrounded by an abundance of Austrian Schnitzel and halal food in their hotels — although some have been spotted sneaking out to the McDonalds just across from the Grand Hotel, where most meetings are held.

So far, negotiations have been broken up into separate working groups. One group is examining rolling back American sanctions. Another is focused on bringing Iran’s nuclear program back into compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the agreement is officially called. 

The challenge now is to merge the two dossiers into one text that outlines the steps the U.S. and Iran each must take to return to compliance. Linking the two topics inevitably means coming up with trade-offs — a contentious subject. It will also mean determining the order of these steps, a topic being discussed in a third working group. But this will likely only be discussed once the basic steps each party has to take are agreed upon.

To get there, several sticking points have to be solved.

Rolling back (some?) sanctions

The main dispute relates to the type and number of sanctions the U.S. will have to lift.

Under Trump, the U.S. left the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed crippling economic sanctions on Iran. The Trump administration then imposed additional sanctions on Iran not related to the nuclear deal in an effort to complicate any return to the agreement.

For example, the Trump administration slapped penalties on Iran’s central bank and oil companies, as well as against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, accusing them of facilitating terrorist activity. The move created a complicated web of sanctions that is difficult to disentangle.

Still, the U.S. has signaled readiness to lift some of these terrorism-related sanctions, including some targeting public and industrial sectors, in addition to the penalties originally rolled back under the 2015 accord. 

“If we think that it is inconsistent with a return to the JCPOA to maintain a particular designation, then we are prepared to lift it,” said a senior U.S. State Department official. “But conversely, if we think that it is consistent with the JCPOA to maintain it, we’ll maintain it.”

The senior official said the U.S. was ready to lift sanctions and remove terror designations that would enable Iran to enjoy the same economic benefits provided for in the original JCPOA.

Yet Iran, at least publicly, is driving a hard line on the issue, insisting the U.S. must remove all Trump-imposed sanctions. Tehran also wants to independently verify that all sanctions have been removed before it will come back into compliance with the agreement after several months — essentially asking the U.S. to make its concessions first.

In the eyes of the U.S., these demands are “maximalist” and “unrealistic,” according to the State Department official.

“Iran has been demanding more from the U.S. than what the JCPOA requires,” the official said.

Addressing Iran’s nuclear program

Another sticking point is detailing the specific steps Iran must take to return to compliance with the JCPOA, given that Iran’s nuclear program is in a different place today than it was in 2015. 

After Trump left the deal, Iran started making advances to its nuclear program, gaining scientific expertise and knowledge along the way. To address this, additional measures will have to be defined that were not part of the original deal. 

For example, Iran has installed advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium, arguing that it was entitled to do so after the U.S. abandoned the deal. While it is possible to destroy these machines, the acquired expertise will remain.

The U.S. official criticized Iran for failing to do its part on the subject, calling it “a complication.”

“We have to find ways to address it,” the official said.

External forces

Domestic political pressures both in Tehran and in Washington also remain a risk.

Hardline forces in Iran, who do not favor a return to the deal, have recently exploited leaked audiotapes of an interview with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, in which he accused the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of intentionally pushing policies that contradicted his own diplomatic efforts.

Likewise, Republican opponents of nuclear diplomacy with Iran in Washington vehemently oppose a broad removal of terror sanctions and a return to the deal.

Nevertheless, the U.S. official said that an understanding of a return to mutual compliance can be reached “relatively swiftly” if Iran makes a political decision to do so.

With the time crunch in mind, negotiators appear willing to stay in Vienna at least through this week for this fourth round of talks, despite an EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting on Monday and the important Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr on May 13. 

Meanwhile, two diplomats told POLITICO they expect an extension of the temporary agreement between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is set to expire on May 21. Under the deal, IAEA inspectors retain access to the most important nuclear sites in Iran. Once the agreement expires, Iran has threatened to cut off access and destroy data from IAEA cameras inside Iran’s nuclear plants. 

Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.

Source : Politico EU More   

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Europe seeks ways to mourn victims of a pandemic still rampant

Experts highlight the importance of gatherings to mark what has been lost but social proximity remains dangerous.

Europe seeks ways to mourn victims of a pandemic still rampant

BERLIN — In mid-April, more than a year after the coronavirus pandemic’s first wave hit Europe, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier organized a national “day of remembrance” for the more than 80,000 Germans who have died of COVID-19.

The day featured a commemorative event held in Berlin’s Konzerthaus, with speeches by Steinmeier and Germans who had lost loved ones to the virus.

“We as a society do not make ourselves aware often enough that behind all the numbers, there are fates and people,” Steinmeier said. “Their suffering and death have often remained invisible to the public. A society that suppresses this suffering will be damaged as a whole.”

The date of the event was announced back in early February, but it ultimately fell during the country’s deadly third wave — and just as the German Bundestag was set to approve the country’s strictest anti-coronavirus measures yet. In the end, the final guest list for the event included just 17 people: seven government officials and 10 citizens.

The pared-down commemoration in Berlin illustrated a pressing question currently facing Europe: How should countries mark the impact of the coronavirus while the disease continues to rage across much of the Continent?

Taking time to remember the many thousands of people who have died from the virus is an important part of processing the pandemic on an individual and societal level, experts say, but the disease has upended normal mourning rituals by drastically limiting opportunities to gather.

“It’s clear this is preliminary: We don’t know how many dead we will have, and we don’t know what story we will build out of this,” said Astrid Erll, a professor at the Goethe University Frankfurt and founder of the Frankfurt Memory Studies Platform. “But I don’t think it’s too strange to do these … we have the feeling as a society that we need to put things on hold for a moment and to have a first round of commemoration.”

Balancing that need to acknowledge the human toll of the pandemic with the fact that it’s far from over — and gathering in large groups remains dangerous — is the latest test for officials who are now well into year two of a once-in-a-generation public health crisis. 

Varying approaches

Different countries have taken different approaches: Some have held national events or designated days of mourning, while others have put together commemorative spaces where people can come to reflect. Sometimes these efforts come from national governments themselves, and sometimes they’re from outside organizations, or even opposition parties.

The timing has also differed from country to country. Spain, hard hit by the first wave of the pandemic, opted to hold a commemorative event last July. About 400 attendees, including top EU officials, sat in socially distanced concentric circles surrounding a memorial with a burning flame, and relatives of those who had died laid white roses next to the memorial.

In the U.K., a group of charities and aid organizations, including the British Red Cross and Marie Curie, which supports the terminally ill, organized a “national day of reflection” on March 23. Along with leading politicians, they asked citizens to observe a moment of silence and organize local and small-scale commemorations in line with social distancing rules.

But Europe’s third wave this spring has complicated plans for large-scale events. In February, with critical-care beds in Italy once again full, officials opted to scale down their commemorative plans: A ceremony in Brescia, to mark the first anniversary of the virus’ arrival in the country, was canceled on health grounds.

A month later, Italy observed March 18 — the day in 2020 when the death toll in the city of Bergamo was so high that the army had to start transporting coffins — as its first annual national day of mourning. Prime Minister Mario Draghi spoke at the inauguration of a memorial park, where hundreds of trees were planted for the victims in the hard-hit region.

“This wood doesn’t only contain the memory of the many victims,” he said. “This place is a symbol of the pain of an entire nation.”

Those same considerations were in the minds of officials in Germany, who faced criticism for going ahead with their April event despite rising case numbers. Knowing the situation could quickly shift ahead of the event, they prepared three different possible scenarios of varying sizes; the 17-person version they settled on was the smallest-scale option. Officials coordinated with the German broadcaster ZDF to adapt the event for television so people could watch from home.

A representative from Steinmeier’s office said they felt it was important to go ahead with the event for three main reasons. First, to honor those who have died as a result of the virus a year after the first wave began; second, to acknowledge the other kinds of suffering that have taken place during the pandemic; and third, to help bridge what they saw as a growing gap between politicians and the public.

“In this whole pandemic, there’s been a lack of empathy and public acknowledgment of pain — and that is an urgent problem, because it drives a wedge in society,” the representative said. “And therefore we said we simply can’t wait: One year into the pandemic is an important milestone, and we have to do something around this anniversary.”

The event itself used intentional symbolism to demonstrate the connection between government officials and citizens. Five Germans spoke about loved ones they have lost to the virus, and afterward carried a candle to the center of the stage. Each one was accompanied by the head of one of Germany’s five branches of government — President Steinmeier, Chancellor Angela Merkel, Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble, Bundesrat President Rainer Haseloff and Constitutional Court President Stephan Harbarth.

That choreography “was a very low-key but evocative signal,” said Aleida Assmann, a professor emeritus at the University of Konstanz and a leading expert on memory culture. “It was an expression of solidarity: The person who had to represent their family member who died and the person who had state authority were on exactly the same level.”

Elsewhere, governments, opposition movements and other organizations have found ways to create commemorative public spaces that honor the victims without one specific event or a mass gathering.

An island memorial

On Margaret Island in the Hungarian capital Budapest, the opposition New World People’s Party placed more than 20,000 stones — each one listing a victim’s age and a number — to commemorate those in the country who had died from the virus. A “National Covid Memorial Wall” along the banks of the River Thames in London was painted with thousands of small red hearts to commemorate British victims.

In the Czech capital Prague, a civic group called “Million Moments for Democracy” painted 25,000 crosses onto the cobblestones in the city’s iconic Old Town Square to mark the number of victims and criticize the government for its handling of the country’s deadly virus surges.

“Dissatisfaction is growing in society,” the group wrote in an open letter to the Czech government. “To date, 24,810 people have died. They were our loved ones, friends, parents and grandparents, colleagues from work.”

The makeshift monument ultimately took on a life of its own: People began chalking names and dates next to individual crosses, turning it into both a space for individual mourning and collective reflection.

The current spate of commemorative events is only the first step in a mourning process that won’t conclude until long after the pandemic ends, said the University of Konstanz’s Assmann. While it can be worthwhile to stop to reflect on what’s happened thus far, it’s impossible to build a collective memory or a historical narrative surrounding the coronavirus while we’re still in the middle of it.

“For every narrative you need a beginning and an ending, and you need some idea of tension that is built up and then resolved at the end,” she said. “And that’s really what we’re lacking.”

Source : Politico EU More   

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