VIENNA—Talks to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal on Friday faced the prospect of collapse after a last-minute Russian demand forced world powers to pause negotiations for an undetermined time despite having a largely completed text.
Negotiators have reached the final stages of 11 months of discussions to restore the deal, which lifted sanctions on Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear programme, long seen by the West as a cover for developing atomic bombs.
But last Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov unexpectedly demanded sweeping guarantees that Russian trade with Iran would not be affected by sanctions imposed on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine—a demand Western powers say is unacceptable and Washington has insisted it will not agree to.
A collapse of the talks is thought to increase the risk of a fresh war in the Middle East due to Iran’s rapidly advancing nuclear activities. Tehran denies it has ever sought atomic bombs while it is estimated to be close to collecting enough nuclear materials to make its own nuclear weapon.
Failure to reach a deal could also prompt the West to impose additional harsh sanctions on Iran, and further escalate world oil prices already strained by the Ukraine conflict.
“A pause in #ViennaTalks is needed, due to external factors,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote on Twitter. “A final text is essentially ready and on the table.”
Tehran on Thursday said it sees no new obstacles to reviving the deal. Washington underlined that it had no intention of accommodating Russia’s demands, which it has said have nothing to do with the Iran talks.
A week ago preparations were being made in Vienna for a weekend meeting to conclude an agreement bringing Iran back into compliance with the deal’s restrictions on its nuclear activities. Officials said they were hoping the talks would resume in the next days. A senior EU official said there were still two or three technical issues that needed to be resolved between Washington and Tehran, but those could be resolved quickly.
The official said the talks had to be paused to get a response from Moscow after it was told that its demands, which went beyond its nuclear commitments, could not be met.
“They are thinking about that reaction and in the meantime we cannot advance in the sense that we cannot finalise the negotiation,” the official said.
The U.S. State Department said negotiating teams, including the U.S. team led by Special Envoy Robert Malley, were returning to their capitals for consultations.
“There will need to be decisions made in places like Tehran and Moscow,” department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters at a press briefing. “If that political will is there, if that seriousness of purpose is there, we remain confident that we can achieve a mutual return to compliance in fairly short order.”
An E3 diplomat ruled out negotiating with Russia over a “broad exemption that would be extraneous” to the nuclear deal, adding that if Moscow definitively blocked the deal, other world powers would need to study alternative options.
Accusing Russia of taking the Iran nuclear talks hostage, the diplomat said there was “critical urgency” to conclude the deal as further external factors could also threaten it.
Bilateral talks between Iran, Russia and China are likely to take place to try and break the deadlock, diplomats said.
“External factors must be resolved in next few days or agreement likely to unravel,” Britain’s envoy Stephanie al-Qaq wrote on Twitter.
By John Irish, Parisa Hafezi, and Francois Murphy