Iran Nuclear Deal Elusive as Big Powers Adjourn Until Next Week

World powers adjourned talks in Vienna with plans to return next week, as differences between Iran and the U.S. over how to revive a landmark nuclear deal continue to delay the Islamic Republic’s return to oil markets.

Both the U.S. and Iran will need to make “hard decisions” that could ruffle domestic political constituencies, Enrique Mora, the European Union’s deputy foreign policy chief, said after Wednesday’s talks concluded. Envoys were departing Vienna to return to their capitals, where leaders will have to decide whether the landmark agreement capping Iran’s nuclear work in exchange for sanctions relief is worth reviving.

“There are a number of technical issues that are rather complex, but I can say there are fewer than there were one week ago,” Mora, a Spanish diplomat, told journalists after the fifth round of talks. “The sixth round will definitely be the last.”

The 2015 nuclear deal has been on the verge of collapse since it was abandoned by former President Donald Trump three years ago. His sanctions on Iran’s economy, and the Islamic Republic’s subsequent decision to significantly expand its nuclear program, triggered a crisis in the Persian Gulf that has roiled markets and almost led to war.

A bleak assessment of Iran’s nuclear transparency by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors cast a pall over this week’s round of talks. Monitors circulated two confidential reports raising new questions about Iran’s willingness to address concerns over its past and present nuclear activities in the absence of a return to the deal.

The EU’s Mora said that while diplomats had “taken note of the IAEA report,” the European Union wouldn’t push for a formal resolution to censure Iran at next week’s meeting. Another European official, who asked not be be identified in keeping with diplomatic rules, said passing a resolution against Iran would be a distraction at this stage of the negotiations and that the goal is to reinstitute expansive IAEA monitoring.

Iran’s lead negotiator in the talks, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, and diplomats from China, Russia and the European Union participated in Wednesday’s session.

Sounding a note of optimism earlier in the day, Araghchi said that differences “have reached a point where everyone believes that they’re not unsolvable,” according to Iranian state TV. “All the delegations are determined and there is full seriousness,” Araghchi said. After the session, Iran’s state-run Press TV quoted him as saying that “key issues” were outstanding and that they required “political decisions.”

In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman said “some progress had been made.”

“Talks are ongoing and they will continue at a pace that’s honestly appropriate to address the significance of the issues that are currently on the table and being negotiated right now,” Jalina Porter told reporters. The U.S. isn’t participating directly in the Vienna talks.

Oil market participants are closely watching the talks for signs of when -- and whether -- the U.S. will ease its sanctions on Iran’s energy sector, allowing the Islamic Republic to return to global oil markets and hike crude production back up to pre-sanctions levels.

Crude prices rose above $70 a barrel on Tuesday as traders reacted to signals that the talks were stalling and would need to go to another round. Brent climbed another 0.9% to $70.88 at 10:30 a.m. in London on Wednesday.

Ali Rabiei, Iran’s government spokesman, said this week officials hope they can have the nuclear deal fully back in effect by August, when President Hassan Rouhani leaves office, revising expectations that an agreement would be reached this month before the country’s presidential election on June 18.

Iranian officials have said disagreements remain over the removal of certain individual sanctions and the scaling back of Iran’s nuclear activities.

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