U.S., Iran at loggerheads over nuclear deal after Russian interruption

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  • Volley of Iranian comments after last-minute Russian demand
  • U.S. rejects Russian demands for Ukraine sanctions exemption
  • Iranian officials say key issues remain unresolved
  • Negotiations in Vienna have slowed to a trickle

DUBAI/VIENNA, March 10 (Reuters) - Iran and the United States were at loggerheads over reviving the 2015 nuclear deal on Thursday after Tehran suggested there were new obstacles and Washington said hard issues remained.

The differences emerged just as Western powers were already grappling with last-minute Russian demands that threatened to torpedo otherwise largely completed 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 by re-imposing sanctions on Tehran.

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Then last Saturday Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov unexpectedly 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 and Washington has insisted it will not entertain. read more

Russia's demand initially angered Tehran and appeared to help it and Washington move towards agreement on the few remaining thorny issues, diplomats said, but a sudden volley of public comments by Iranian officials including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Thursday suggested the wind had turned.

"US approach to Iran's principled demands, coupled with its unreasonable offers and unjustified pressure to hastily reach an agreement, show that US isn't interested in a strong deal that would satisfy both parties," Khamenei's top security official Ali Shamkhani said in English on Twitter on Thursday morning.

"Absent US political decision, the talks get knottier by the hour," said Shamkhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council.

Shamkhani did not specify what the demands were but that there were any at all contradicted what four Western officials had said - that a final draft text had been agreed which only needed minor adjustments with the exception of the open question about Russia's sweeping demand for guarantees.

The text does, however, include a similar but much narrower guarantee covering nuclear cooperation between Russia and Iran outlined in the agreement, diplomats said.

The United States on Thursday reiterated that it had no intention of accommodating Russia's last-minute demands, which it has said have nothing to do with the Iran talks and added that a small number of outstanding and difficult issues were still yet to be resolved for a deal to be reached.

"We also have no intention of offering Russia anything new or specific as it relates to sanctions nor is anything new required to successfully reach an agreement on a mutual return to full compliance with the JCPOA," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.

"We remain close to a possible deal. It's really down to a very small number of outstanding issues. But the reason these particular issues are outstanding is because they are among the most difficult ones," Price said.

LIMPING ON

An Iranian official said on Thursday there were still two to three difficult questions to resolve and that Tehran was now also demanding a change in the sequencing of how an accord should be implemented. read more

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian appeared to suggest one of the stumbling blocks remained the extent to which sanctions on Iran's elite revolutionary guards would be rolled back.

"Some topics related to our national heroes are not negotiable," he was quoted saying after a call with the European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

Iran has also said it wants guarantees that no future U.S. president will again abandon a nuclear deal.

Underscoring Iranian concerns, former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Wednesday that should Washington agree a new accord and were the Republicans to take power again, they would "rip up any new Iran Nuclear Deal on day one."

European negotiators from France, Britain, and Germany have temporarily left the talks as they believed they had gone as far as they could and it was now up to the United States and Iran to agree on outstanding issues.

Negotiations in Vienna have limped on with just a fraction of the number of daily meetings that were taking place in previous weeks.

The talks' coordinator, Enrique Mora of the European Union, met Iran's chief negotiator Ali Bagheri twice on Thursday after meetings with Russia's chief envoy Mikhail Ulyanov on Tuesday and Wednesday.

With few signs of progress, France expressed the impatience of Western powers, which have long warned that time is running out because Iran's nuclear progress will soon have made the original deal's restrictions redundant.

"We are very close to an agreement, but the window of opportunity is closing," French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre told reporters in a daily briefing. read more

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Additional reporting by Dubai Newsroom; Writing by Francois Murphy; Editing by Robert Birsel, Michael Georgy, Toby Chopra, William Maclean and Jonathan Oatis

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