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US says 'swift' return to Iran deal possible ahead of Vienna talks

US says 'swift' return to Iran deal possible ahead of Vienna talks
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An agreement between the U.S. and Iran on a pathway back to the 2015 nuclear deal that former President TrumpDonald TrumpNorth Carolina Senate passes trio of election measures 14 Republicans vote against making Juneteenth a federal holiday Border state governors rebel against Biden's immigration chaos MORE withdrew from in 2018 is “doable,” and could happen before mid-June, a senior State Department official said Thursday.

A fourth round of talks between U.S., Iranian and international participants to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are expected to resume in Vienna on Friday, with U.S. officials hopeful that an agreement between Washington and Tehran could lead to a “swift” return to the deal for both countries.

“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,” the official said in a briefing with reporters on Thursday.

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The official said it is “absolutely” possible to get a deal before the Iranians head to presidential elections on June 18, but that it requires a political decision on the part of Tehran to accept a certain level of sanctions relief from the U.S. and adhere to its own commitments to the JCPOA’s restraint on nuclear activity.

“But that's a question to which we don't have an answer. Iran has that answer,” the official said.

The U.S. and Iran had earlier sent signals that they were approaching closer consensus on diplomatic talks, with a flurry of meetings taking place in the Middle East between the U.S. and its Arab and Gulf partners and a breakthrough of diplomatic talks between Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Outside observers and experts say that the timing of a return to the JCPOA rests with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate authority over government decisions, and is likely weighing how the presidential elections will best serve returning to the nuclear agreement.

For the U.S., Iranian elections are likely to pose a significant challenge for ongoing discussions, as the presidential ballot is expected to have hard-line candidates that are antagonistic to the U.S.

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President BidenJoe BidenJapan to possibly ease COVID-19 restrictions before Olympics 14 Republicans vote against making Juneteenth a federal holiday China supplies millions of vaccine doses to developing nations in Asia MORE and his officials have said returning the U.S. and Iran to the JCPOA is the best way to constrain Iran's ability to build a nuclear weapon.

Iran maintains that its nuclear activities are peaceful and remained within the constraints of the JCPOA for at least a year following Trump's withdrawal and imposition of a sanctions regime meant to isolate the Islamic republic and force negotiations on a new deal.

In 2019, Iran began violating the terms of the JCPOA, raising alarm that it was shortening the time span needed for building a nuclear weapon.

Supporters of the JCPOA say that Iran's adherence to the deal proved it works.

Opponents are firmly against the U.S. returning to the JCPOA and lifting any sanctions that are required under the deal, saying that Iran still has nuclear weapons ambitions, and that access to cash leads to it funding its other destabilizing activities in the region, including its ballistic missile program, support for terrorism and proxy-fighting forces across the Middle East.

The Biden administration has said it will use a return to compliance with the JCPOA to negotiate a "longer and stronger" deal that addresses Iran's other malign activity.

The senior State Department official said on Thursday that the U.S. is prepared to hold those discussions “immediately”, and that certain conversations around what actions Iran would need to take “may be taking place, to some extent, already,” referring to concerns over its destabilizing actions.

The official also addressed the fate of Americans detained in Iran, viewed as political hostages by the administration, saying it is the highest priority of the Biden administration to secure their release and that is being dealt with independent of the discussions over the JCPOA.

The official criticized Iran as committing “unspeakable cruelty” in leaking false information that a deal had been struck for the release of the detained Americans.

It was reported on Sunday that Iran was prepared to release detained American and British citizens in exchange for billions of dollars. The Biden administration flatly rejected that such a deal was reached.

“It is the height of cruelty that would be hard to surpass, to wrongfully detain American citizens simply for the purpose of using them as pawns to try and extract concessions from the United States or from other countries,” the official said.

“But they exceeded that cruelty, Iran did, by leaking information that a deal had been reached — and one could only imagine the suffering that the families of the detainees had to endure when they thought for a moment, that their loved ones are going to be brought back home, and that's unspeakable cruelty."

At least four Iranian Americans are being detained in Iran, including businessman and conservationist Morad Tahbaz, businessman Emad Sharghi, businessman Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer.

“We're actively seeking to release them,” the official said, as well as calling on Iran to release information on the fate of Bob Levinson, a former FBI agent who is presumed to have died in Iranian custody after disappearing in the country in 2007.

“We think about Bob Levinson every day, and yes we are engaged very intensely in a process to see whether they [the detainees] can be home and reunited with their loved ones as soon as possible.”