There are still big gaps between US and Iranian positions on what a mutual return to the 2015 nuclear deal looks like, a senior State Department official told reporters on Thursday ahead of the next round in Vienna.

Why is this important: Talks are at a critical juncture as key deadlines approach, after which a deal could be much more difficult to strike. The official said a deal could be reached in a matter of weeks, but Iran’s stance will need to change dramatically for that to happen.

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The state of play: Like Axios reported wednesday, a key flaw concerns the nuclear capabilities Iran would retain after returning to the deal – especially what will happen to Iran’s new advanced centrifuges.

  • The senior official said what would be required of Iran under the terms of the 2015 agreement was clear, but confirmed that the Iranians were seeking less severe restrictions.

  • The Iranians are also making “unrealistic demands” in terms of the sanctions they expect the United States to lift, the official said.

  • “They have made requests that go beyond what we think are necessary and they have not made a commitment to what we think is necessary,” the official said. Then there is the unresolved question of how to sequence the American and Iranian steps.

Still, the official said that the negotiations are “not rocket science”, and a deal could be reached ahead of the June 18 presidential elections in Iran, provided the Iranians accept that the goal is “not to reinvent the JCPOA, but to comply with it” .

At the same time, The official said the Biden administration was bracing for the possibility of the talks failing without any agreement.

  • “If that happens, the Biden administration will take care of it and do everything to ensure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon – but we prefer to reach an agreement,” the official stressed.

And after: Another round of nuclear talks is set to take place in Vienna on Friday, with US envoy Rob Malley negotiating indirectly with the Iranians through EU mediators.

  • On May 20, a temporary agreement allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor certain Iranian nuclear sites is due to expire. This could seriously diminish the visibility of the international community on Iran’s nuclear program and further complicate the path to an agreement.

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