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Iran nuclear deal parties meet in Vienna as accord nears collapse

A view of Boushehr Nuclear Power Plant, the largest in the Middle East [Getty]

Date of publication: 6 December, 2019

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Envoys from Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and Iran took part in the three-hour-long meeting in Vienna, the first time the six parties have gathered in this format since July.
The signatories to the Iran nuclear deal remain committed to the faltering accord, China and Russia said on Friday, following crunch talks as Tehran has vowed to continue to breach limits on its nuclear programme.

Envoys from Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and Iran took part in the three-hour-long meeting in Vienna, which is the first time the six parties have gathered in this format since July.

Since May, Iran has taken a series of measures, including stepping up uranium enrichment, in breach of the 2015 deal, with another such move likely in early January.

Iran insists that under the agreement it has the right to take these measures in retaliation for the US's withdrawal from the deal in 2018 and reimposition of crippling sanctions.

The Iranian delegation had threatened to boycott the talks on Thursday, when it emerged that an exiled Iranian opposition group had planned an anti-government protest outside the hotel where the meeting was expected to take place. 

Read more: EU countries urge UN to take action over Iran’s ‘nuclear-capable missiles’ 

In response, the EU changed the location to its nearby mission to the United Nations, in Vienna.

The very survival of the agreement now hangs in the balance, as Iran continues to breach limits on its nuclear programme.  This has included exceeding the maximum amount of enriched uranium allowed under the deal, as well as resuming enrichment at its Fordow facility.

Since last month, European members have discussed triggering a "dispute resolution mechanism" which is part of the nuclear accord. This would mean a reimposition of UN sanctions on Iran.

On the eve of what was already likely to be a strained meeting, Britain, France and Germany accused Iran of developing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, in a letter to the UN on Thursday.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif dismissed the allegation as "desperate falsehood".

Chinese delegation head Cong Fu told reporters after the talks that all parties remained committed to the deal and the dispute resolution mechanism - which China is against activating - was not evoked.

"All countries need to refrain from taking actions that may further complicate the situation," the senior diplomat said.

"Bringing this issue to the (UN) Security Council is not in anybody's interest except the US maybe."

Other envoys did not talk as they left the EU delegation, which hosted the meeting. 

Russia's representative, ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov, said on Twitter that meeting participants remained "fully united in their support and commitment" to the accord despite "all the difficulties and all the differences".

Read more: Iran ready to resume nuclear talks with US once sanctions end, says Rouhani

Analysts say if UN sanctions are re-imposed and the deal falls apart, Iran could also withdraw from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

"It's not clear whether that's worth the benefit," Ali Vaez of International Crisis Group told AFP.

But he warned the risk of the deal collapsing was increasing as Iran was "running out of measures that are easy to reverse and non-controversial".

"Both sides are locked into an escalatory cycle that is just very hard to imagine that they would step away from," he said.

Iran has been gripped by bloody protests over the past month, resulting in the deaths of over 200 people. These were sparked by widespread discontent at the effects of the crippling US sanctions embodied in Iran's austerity measures, such as the 200 percent hike in fuel prices.

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