US says it is 'possible' to revive Iran nuclear deal before vote

State Department official confirms 'active, indirect discussions' under way to secure release of US citizens held in Iran

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: The State Department Building is pictured in Washington, U.S., January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo/File Photo
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A deal to salvage the Iran nuclear accord may be possible before Tehran holds elections in June, a senior US State Department official said on Thursday, a day before talks were due to resume in Vienna.

The official also confirmed that "there are active discussions, indirect discussions" under way with Tehran to secure the "immediate" release of US citizens being held in the country, but did not say if that was a condition for a US return to the deal.

Indirect talks began in early April in Vienna between Washington and Tehran, with the other signatories to the 2015 deal – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the EU – acting as intermediaries.

The goal is to find a way back to the accord, known as the JCPOA, from which former US president Donald Trump walked away and his successor Joe Biden wants to revive.

For that to happen, the US and Iran must agree on lifting the sanctions reinstated by Mr Trump and on Tehran's commitment to follow the terms of the deal.

When he walked away from the 2015 agreement, Iran started to abandon the limits on its production of nuclear material.

The three initial rounds of talks were described as "serious" and "productive" by the US official.

Russia has said it wants an agreement concluded in a fortnight, before the campaign for Iran's June 18 presidential election overshadows the talks.

Washington has not ruled out the possibility.

"Is it possible to get a deal before the Iranian elections? Absolutely," said the State Department official.

"It's do-able because this is not rocket science. It's not inventing a new deal, it's reviving one that has been undermined."

The official said the main variable in the equation was how much Iran's leadership really wanted to achieve an agreement.

"If Iran makes a political decision that it genuinely wants to return to the JCPOA as the JCPOA was negotiated, then it could be done relatively quickly and implementation could be relatively swift," he said.

"We don't know if Iran has made that decision. We'll just have to see whether the next round actually moves things forward or whether we still are faced with unrealistic demands by Iran."

Iranian media reported last weekend that there was an agreement between Tehran and Washington for the release of prisoners held by each side.

Despite the detailed reports, both sides now deny such an accord.

"There's no deal," a US official said, accusing Iran of "unspeakable cruelty" for putting out stories that raised the hopes of prisoners' families.

"We want it to be resolved sooner rather than later," the official said. "We want to deal with the detainees immediately."