The United Nations, European Union and many Security Council members urged the United States and Iran on Wednesday to quickly put the 2015 nuclear deal aimed at reining in Tehran's nuclear program back on track, but neither side showed any sign of movement toward an agreement.
During six rounds of talks in Vienna, the six countries that remain parties to the agreement -- Russia, China, Germany, France, Britain and Iran -- have been trying to resolve major outstanding issues on how the United States can rejoin.
Then-President Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement in 2018, but President Joe Biden repudiated his predecessor and said the U.S. wants to return to the pact.
After the latest Vienna talks June 20, the EU official who coordinated the meeting, Enrique Mora, told reporters: "We are closer to a deal, but we are not there." Top Russian representative Mikhail Ukyanov said that "the time has come for political decisions" ahead of what is supposed to be a final round of negotiations.
But in the Security Council on Wednesday, diplomats from Iran and the United States took tough stands, giving no hint of compromise during a meeting on implementation of the 2015 council resolution that endorsed the nuclear agreement.
The 2015 accord is aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, which Tehran denies it is seeking. Under its provisions, U.N. sanctions that severely affected the oil-rich nation's economy were lifted, but Trump re-imposed those sanctions unilaterally and added tougher ones when the U.S. pulled out of the pact.
Iranian Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi strongly criticized the continuing impact of U.S. sanctions, saying they were also affecting the country's efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Nothing has changed except the verbal declaration of the United States of its intention to return to compliance" with the agreement, he told the council. "In reality, until this very moment, the maximum pressure policy and the draconian sanctions against our people still continue."
He said Iran has paid "a heavy price" to preserve the deal and remains committed to it "as long as other parties put an end, completely and without any precondition or further delay, to their bullying policies."
Ravanchi said that "it is high time" for the United States and the three European parties to the agreement to make "difficult decisions" to return to full compliance.
U.S. deputy ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis told council members that "the last few rounds of discussions in Vienna have helped to crystallize the choices that need to be made by Iran and by the United States in order achieve a mutual return to compliance."
"The United States is committed to ensuring Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon, and we believe diplomacy, in coordination with our allies and regional partners, is the best path to achieve that goal," he said.
But DeLaurentis said recent reports by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the International Atomic Energy Agency make clear that Iran is escalating its nuclear program beyond the agreement's limits, both in numbers and types of centrifuges, quantities and levels of uranium enrichment up to 60%, and producing uranium metal.
"We urge Iran to refrain from taking further escalatory steps and to return to full implementation" of the agreement's provisions, "including those related to IAEA verification, monitoring, and implementation of the additional protocol," DeLaurentis said.
Ravanchi said all Iran's steps are allowed under the deal because the U.S. violated the agreement, and reiterated that they are reversible.
A key provision in the 2015 Security Council resolution endorsing the agreement calls on Iran "not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons" but it does not explicitly demand that Tehran do so.
Iran launched ballistic missiles and tested a space vehicle early this year, which sparked complaints from France, Britain, Germany and Israel, backed by the U.S. But Russia and Iran insisted they did not violate the agreement.
U.N. political chief Rosemary DiCarlo told the council that diplomatic efforts in Vienna "offer a critical opportunity" for the U.S. and Iran to return fully to the deal.
She echoed Guterres' appeal to the U.S. to lift or waive sanctions and extend waivers on oil trade with Iran. She called on Iran to refrain from further escalation, return to full implementation of the deal, and resume an agreement with the IAEA to monitor and verify its nuclear activities that expired June 24.
Calling this "a defining moment," DiCarlo said it is "critical for all parties to seize this opportunity" to put the agreement back on track.
EU Ambassador Olof Skoog warned that "what might be possible still today may prove impossible in the near future."
"We have a limited diplomatic window ahead of us that we should not miss," he told the council.