The US and Iran are “walking on thin ice” in nuclear talks which resumed in Vienna on Thursday in the shadow of Tehran’s new enrichment plans, Austria’s foreign minister said.
Iran announced on Tuesday that it will increase uranium enrichment to 60 per cent after an alleged sabotage attack on its Natanz nuclear plant.
Talks on a possible US return to the 2015 nuclear deal continued on Thursday between Iran and the remaining signatories to the pact - Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China.
European diplomats were poised to shuttle between the Iranians and a US delegation based at a separate hotel.
Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg told OE1 radio on Thursday that “the pressure on both sides is enormous”.
“They know that they are walking on thin ice and that the clock is ticking loudly,” he said.
“They are very aware of their responsibility, and it is clear that there are forces on all sides who have an interest in seeing these negotiations fail.
“But I have the understanding that the commitment is there from both sides to make progress. It is perhaps the last diplomatic rescue effort.”
Enrique Mora, an EU official chairing the talks, said diplomats were "ready to advance our talks" despite "very challenging events and announcements over the past days".
Iran nuclear talks face long road ahead
A first round of talks in the Austrian capital last week had been described as constructive by diplomats.
Russia's representative in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, said that the "general impression is positive" after the main discussions ended on Thursday.
They would be followed by "a number of informal meetings in different formats, including at expert level," he said.
Mr Schallenberg said that diplomats "really need to find a deal by May", before Iranian elections in June.
He said that Iran's "breakout time" – the period needed to acquire enough material for a nuclear weapon – was only a few months.
“What we would then see is an arms race in the Gulf region and that would have massive effects on security in all of Europe, including in Austria,” he said.
Tehran denies seeking to obtain nuclear weapons, and says that its nuclear technology is for civilian purposes.
The 2015 deal sought to limit Iran's nuclear activity in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
But the US pulled out of the pact under Donald Trump’s presidency in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Tehran.
Iran has since breached the limits it agreed to under the deal, including on uranium enrichment.
Under the accord, it had committed to keep enrichment to 3.67 per cent, but it stepped this up to 20 per cent in January.
It has now "almost completed preparations" to enrich uranium to 60 per cent, the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency said.
Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group, said the events of the past few days “added urgency to the talks”, and “reminded both parties that the status quo is a lose-lose situation".
US President Joe Biden's administration is working to restore the deal, but the talks are expected to last for months.
The US denied involvement in the Natanz incident, which Iran blamed on Israel.
Washington is "very open-eyed about how this will be a long process", White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
"It's happening through indirect discussions, but we still feel that it is a step forward."
Britain, France and Germany expressed "grave concern" over the most recent enrichment move, while rejecting "all escalatory measures by any actor".
“Iran has no credible civilian need for enrichment at this level,” said a joint statement by the three European powers.
Mr Ulyanov, the Russian envoy, said the deal was the "only viable solution that can bring the Iranian nuclear programme back to the agreed parameters".