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Russian demands halt Iran nuclear talks

Efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal faced the prospect of collapse after a last-minute Russian demand forced world powers to pause negotiations.

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 program, long seen by the West as a cover for developing atomic bombs.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has 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.

A collapse of the talks could result in Tehran getting within sprinting distance of developing nuclear weapons, a prospect that could ignite a fresh war in the Middle East. Tehran denies it has ever sought atomic bombs.

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.”

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 rapidly advancing nuclear activities and bringing the United States back into the accord it left in 2018.

A senior EU official said the talks had to be paused to get a response from Moscow after it was told its demands, which went beyond its nuclear commitments, could not be met.

The US State Department said negotiating teams, including the US team led by Special Envoy Robert Malley, were returning to their capitals for consultations.

Western officials say there is common interest in avoiding a nuclear nonproliferation crisis, and until now have been on the same page as Moscow, one of the core participants of the 2015 deal, which was rubber-stamped through a resolution at the UN Security Council. All the powers negotiating with Iran, with the exception of Germany, are permanent members of the Council.

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.

Russia’s envoy to the talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, dismissed suggestions that Moscow was the reason the talks had stalled.

“The conclusion of the deal does not depend on Russia only,” he told reporters after meeting EU coordinator Enrique Mora. “There are other actors who need additional time and who have additional concerns, and they are being discussed.”

Appearing to back Moscow, China’s envoy Wang Qun said negotiations couldn’t be conducted under a “political vacuum” and that all sides’ demands needed to be considered.

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