Iran nuclear talks appear near climax, but no deal yet

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VIENNA, March 3 (Reuters) - Talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal appeared to near a climax with talk of an imminent ministerial meeting as a U.N. report on Thursday showed Iran is most of the way to amassing enough enriched uranium for one bomb if purified further.

"We are close to a possible deal," Jalina Porter, the U.S. State Department's principal deputy spokesperson, told reporters but cautioned that unsolved issues remained and that time was of the essence given the pace of Iran's nuclear advances.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report showed Iran's stock of uranium enriched up to 60% fissile purity had almost doubled to 33.2 kg (110 pounds), which a senior diplomat said was around three-quarters of the amount needed, if enriched further, for a nuclear bomb according to a common yardstick.

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The U.N. nuclear watchdog report was seen by Reuters as negotiators seek to resurrect the deal between world powers and Iran under which Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for relief from economic sanctions that slashed its oil exports.

Global oil prices, which had surged to their highest levels in roughly a decade because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, steadied on expectations the deal may be restored, allowing more Iranian oil to flow into a tight market. read more

However, U.S., Iranian and European officials all said an agreement had not yet been struck even as some participants were upbeat.

"There are some issues that need to be finalised ... the outstanding issues are relatively small, but not yet settled," said Russia's envoy, Mikhail Ulyanov, who in public has been the most optimistic participant in the 11 months of talks.

Ulyanov told reporters that he did not believe the talks would now collapse and a ministerial meeting - typically where a deal would be blessed - was likely but he could not say if it would be on Saturday, Sunday or Monday.

An Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson said more work was needed, however, and a White House official said there was "no change" from Wednesday, when it had said all sides were working to clarify the most difficult issues. read more

"Some relevant issues are still open and success is never guaranteed," Enrique Mora, the European Union diplomat coordinating the talks, wrote on Twitter. "We are definitely not there yet." read more

Another wild card is an effort by the IAEA to resolve questions about nuclear material that the Vienna-based agency suspects Iran failed to declare, another obstacle to reaching an agreement to revive the deal.

The IAEA has found particles of processed uranium at three apparently old sites that Iran never declared and has repeatedly said Tehran has not provided satisfactory answers.

Iran wants the IAEA investigation ended as part of an agreement but Western powers have argued that issue is beyond the scope of the 2015 deal, to which the IAEA is not a party.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi will travel to Tehran on Saturday hoping to agree on a process that would lead to the end of the investigation, potentially clearing a way for the wider agreement, diplomats said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of Israel, which opposes revival of the deal with its arch-foe Iran, said he spoke with Grossi about the unexplained traces. read more

The agreement between Iran and world powers was designed to make it harder for Iran to accumulate the fissile material for a bomb, an ambition it has long denied.

Then-President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the deal in 2018, reimposing tough economic sanctions on Tehran. Iran responded by breaching many of the deal's restrictions.

Western powers have said Iran's nuclear progress may soon make the talks pointless, a possibility illustrated by the IAEA report. It showed Iran's stock of uranium enriched to up to 60% fissile purity rose by 15.5 kg to 33.2 kg (46 to 110 pounds).

A common yardstick is that 25 kg of uranium enriched to 90% is what is theoretically needed for one bomb.

How much is required in real life would depend on further processes the material would still have to go through to make an actual bomb, said the senior diplomat on condition of anonymity.

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Reporting by Francois Murphy and Parisa Hafezi in Vienna Additional Reporting by Steve Holland in Washington, John Irish in Paris and Arshad Mohammed in Saint Paul, Minn.; Editing by Grant McCool

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