Iran says it would negotiate directly with the United States in ongoing nuclear talks aimed at reviving the moribund 2015 nuclear accord with world powers if a “good agreement” can be reached.
Speaking at a press conference in Tehran on January 24, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian rejected reports that Iran and the United States are directly negotiating in European-mediated talks in Vienna.
But he added that “if we get to a stage where reaching a good deal with strong guarantees necessitates direct talks with the United States, we will consider it.”
The 2015 deal, which lifted crippling Western economic sanctions in exchange for curbing Tehran's nuclear ambitions, began to unravel in 2018 after former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States and reimposed the sanctions.
That led Iran to start rolling back its commitments and restart some uranium enrichment activity, pushing the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to the verge of complete collapse.
Negotiations to restore the agreement led by the so-called 4+1 group -- China, France, Britain, Russia, and Germany -- began early last year but were put on hold in June with Iran’s presidential election, which brought an ultraconservative government led by President Ebrahim Raisi to power.
Washington is participating in the talks indirectly, with European mediators shuttling between U.S. and Iranian negotiators in Vienna.
After eight rounds of talks, key issues remain the speed and scope of lifting sanctions on Tehran, including Iran’s demand for a U.S. guarantee that it will not violate the agreement again.
The talks are also moving slowly over technical details about how and when to restore curbs on Iran’s atomic work, which has advanced significantly since the United States withdrew from the accord.
Washington is demanding the release of U.S. prisoners jailed in Iran as a precondition for a final deal. The U.S. envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, said on January 23 that it is unlikely that Washington would strike a nuclear agreement unless Tehran releases four U.S. citizens.
"They're separate and we're pursuing both of them. But I will say it is very hard for us to imagine getting back into the nuclear deal while four innocent Americans are being held hostage by Iran," Malley told Reuters in an interview.
"So even as we're conducting talks with Iran indirectly on the nuclear file, we are conducting, again indirectly, discussions with them to ensure the release of our hostages," he said.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on January 24 that the release of prisoners by Iran could not be a precondition, although he left open the option of a prisoner swap.
The nuclear talks are difficult enough without adding more "complicated” issues, Khatibzadeh said.
However, “the issue of releasing prisoners in the U.S. and Iran could also be settled relatively quickly under an exchange program," Khatibzadeh added.
More than a dozen Iranians with Western citizenships are imprisoned in Iran for alleged political offenses or espionage, including four U.S. citizens.
Tehran says Iranians detained in the United States, mostly for breaking sanctions, are being unjustly held.