WASHINGTON – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani oversaw on live television Saturday the launch of advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium, a key component for nuclear weapons, while reiterating his country’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation.
Rouhani’s conflicting messages came as the country observed National Nuclear Technology Day, during which he was seen on state television ordering the injection of uranium gas into nearly 200 centrifuges and tests on other devices at the underground Natanz nuclear plant.
“Once again, I stress that all our nuclear activities are peaceful and for non-military purposes,” Rouhani said during the ceremony at which more than 130 advances in its nuclear industry over the past year were unveiled, primarily in medicine, energy and agriculture.
Rouhani’s actions may have been Iran’s latest in a series of breaches of the 2015 nuclear deal Iran reached with world powers.
The U.S. and Iran have agreed to a second round of indirect talks in Vienna next week to try to bring each other back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, but Iran has insisted that all U.S. sanctions against it be lifted and the U.S. warned that such a demand may lead to an impasse.
A senior U.S. State Department official who spoke to reporters on Friday said the indirect talks would resume in the middle of next week in the Austrian capital. U.S. and Iranian diplomats concluded an initial round of meetings earlier in the day, with mediators from the European Union delivering messages between the two sides. The talks began Tuesday with Iran meeting Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, the five other remaining signatories of the 2015 deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and those five world powers meeting separately with the U.S. delegation nearby.
The JCPOA called for Iran to freeze nuclear activities that could be weaponized in return for sanctions relief from world powers. The U.S. withdrew in 2018 and began unilaterally ratcheting up sanctions on Iran under then-President Donald Trump, who criticized the deal negotiated by his predecessor as not doing enough to stop objectionable Iranian behavior. Iran retaliated a year later by exceeding the JCPOA’s nuclear activity limits.
The U.S. official described this week’s talks as productive, businesslike and constructive. The official said, however, that EU mediators going back and forth between two hotels carrying messages between the U.S. and Iranian teams was cumbersome.
“We exchanged ideas about the principles that would guide any sanctions lifting on the U.S. side,” the official said. The U.S. side did not present a list of specific sanctions that could be lifted, and the Iranian side did not present a list of nuclear steps it would be willing to take to reverse JCPOA violations, the official added.
“All sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA and are inconsistent with the benefits that Iran expects from the JCPOA, we are prepared to lift,” the official said, adding that a question remained about whether Iran is serious about reciprocating the U.S. offer.
Iran’s lead delegate to the talks, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, was quoted on Friday by Iranian state news site Press TV as saying Tehran will “only come back to full compliance with the agreement after the U.S. lifts sanctions imposed, reimposed or relabeled following the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA.” He said Iran also will want to verify the lifting of those sanctions.
The U.S. official rejected that demand, saying the Biden administration sees at least some of Trump’s sanctions as “legitimate.”
“Under the  deal, the U.S. retains the right to impose sanctions for non-nuclear reasons whether it is terrorism or human rights violations or interference with our elections et cetera,” the official said. If Iran insists that all sanctions be removed in order to reach a deal it will lead to an impasse, the official added.
Despite the U.S. and Iran appearing to remain far apart, Press TV said Tehran views the talks as moving in the right direction and said the next Vienna meeting will take place Wednesday.
Iran observers interviewed by VOA Persian in recent days expressed a mixture of optimism and pessimism about the prospects for an eventual deal to revive the JCPOA and ease long running U.S.-Iran tensions.
Speaking in the Austrian capital on Wednesday, University of Vienna politics professor Heinz Gärtner said the U.S. feels a sense of urgency to get an agreement before Iran holds a June presidential election whose winner could take a tougher stance toward the U.S., albeit only with the permission of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in key decision-making.
Gärtner said Iran’s outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, whose government negotiated and entered the JCPOA in 2015, also has an incentive to bring sanctions relief to his people again and thereby avoid leaving office with his reputation marred by a failed agreement.
“The main bulk of the relief will have to go to the population, otherwise there will be unrest. And that’s not what the Iranian government will want,” he said.
However, a U.S.-Iranian agreement that leads only to the lifting of some U.S. sanctions on Iranian energy exports is unlikely to give Iran the economic relief that it wants, said Farhad Alavi, an Iranian American attorney specializing in international sanctions.
In a Tuesday appearance on a TV program about the Vienna talks, Alavi said that if the U.S. maintains sanctions on Iran’s financial sector and Tehran remains blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force — a global financial watchdog — the practical impact of sanctions relief will be “minimal.”
Foundation for Defense of Democracies analyst Bradley Bowman said in a Monday interview that it would be a mistake for the U.S. to provide sanctions relief to Iran as part of a mutual return to compliance with what he said was a flawed original deal that enabled Iran to continue perceived malign activities.
“Tehran remains the world’s leading state sponsor and exporter of terrorism. They have the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East. They continue to target via proxies Americans in the region and our partners and allies,” Bowman said. “I see no evidence of a strategic decision by Tehran to change course and live at peace with its neighbors.”