China champions Iran sanctions relief as Vienna meeting seeks to bring US back to nuclear deal

Sarah Zheng
·4-min read

Beijing called for progress on sanction relief for Iran and for the United States to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as the signatories met in Vienna to seek a breakthrough on the pact.

Wang Qun, China’s representative in the discussions on Tuesday, reiterated Beijing’s consistent stance against “illicit sanctions” against Iran, and said the US should immediately revoke its “long-arm jurisdiction” targeting third-party entities and individuals, including from China.

“China will continue to unswervingly safeguard the comprehensive agreement, and hopes that various parties can increase their sense of urgency and seize all opportunities to push the comprehensive agreement back on the right track through fair and reasonable discussions,” Wang said.

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Wang Qun, China’s envoy to the United Nations and other international organisations in Vienna. Photo: Chinese foreign ministry
Wang Qun, China’s envoy to the United Nations and other international organisations in Vienna. Photo: Chinese foreign ministry

Representatives from Iran, China, Russia, Germany, France and Britain convened in Austria this week to find ways to bring the US – which took part indirectly – back into the Iran deal that offered sanctions relief for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme.

Wang said China had supported the Joint Commission – comprising signatories to the Iran deal – to initiate talks under two working groups to address the lifting of sanctions and on steps for Iran to bring its nuclear programme back in compliance with the parameters of the deal. China also supported the process of “close contact” with the US to push to restore the deal – known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – as soon as possible, he said.

The two working groups “should ensure each side can take part effectively and safeguard legitimate interests of each side. China hopes two working groups achieve progress as soon as possible and submit discussions to the Joint Commission to verify”, Wang said.

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US officials described the talks as “constructive”, but US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Washington did not anticipate immediate breakthroughs in “tough talks” to return Iran to full compliance with its nuclear commitments under the deal.

Iran was among the issues discussed in strained talks between China and the US in Alaska in mid-March, where tensions between the major powers played out publicly. But there have been concerns that China undermined the US sanctions regime on Iran, including with its record-high purchases of Iranian oil in March.

Wang blamed tensions over the Iran nuclear issue on the US’ unilateral withdrawal in 2018 from the deal and said Tehran should only resume full compliance with the agreement if the US lifted its sanctions on Iran.

“The US’ return to the comprehensive deal as soon as possible is the key to the current situation with Iran,” he said, according to Chinese state-run broadcaster CCTV.

“The legitimate demands of the aggrieved party, not the aggressor, should first be acknowledged and satisfied, as this relates to the fundamental question of right and wrong. As a basic principle, the US should remove all illicit sanctions against Iran, and the Iranian side should resume full compliance on this basis.”

In a briefing on Tuesday, Price said “maximalist demands that the United States do everything first, and only in turn would Iran then act” could essentially be ruled out as a viable option, and stressed that the desired goal was a mutual return to compliance, with Iran “permanently and verifiably prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon”.

He added that there was “alignment in many areas” on the Iran issue with both China and Russia, since none wanted Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.

“What we have said when it comes to sanctions enforcement is that right now all of our sanctions, of course, remain in effect,” Price told reporters. “We will continue to work with our partners and our allies around the world to enforce that sanctions regime. If we get to a point by mutual agreement where it is appropriate for us to remove sanctions, we will do that in the context of Iran also resuming compliance with the deal.”

Iran had said it would not hold talks with the US side directly, but the US delegation stayed at a nearby hotel from where the other negotiators were present, with European intermediaries passing messages between the US and Iranian sides.

Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi, who led the Iranian delegation, said the US lifting sanctions on Iran was the first but the most important step for Tehran to return to the deal, according to a statement by Tehran.

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Enrique Mora, deputy secretary general for the European External Action Service, posted on social media that the meeting was “constructive”.

“There’s unity and ambition for a joint diplomatic process with two expert groups on nuclear implementation and sanction lifting,” Mora said on Twitter. “As coordinator, I will intensify separate contacts here in Vienna with all relevant parties, including US,” he said.

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