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Iran Talks Resume, Gingerly, After Attack on Nuclear Site

BRUSSELS — Iran and the other signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal resumed negotiations in Vienna on Thursday to revive the accord, though the atmosphere was fraught in the aftermath of the apparent Israeli attack on a major uranium enrichment site in Iran.

Senior diplomats involved in the talks have agreed that the working groups meant to bring both Iran and the United States into compliance with the deal had made progress.

But after the meeting on Thursday, the head of China’s delegation, Wang Qun, called for a faster pace and fewer distractions.

“We do think that all these developments have reinforced our conviction that what is needed most now as a top priority is to do away with any disruptive factors and pick up the pace of negotiation here,” said Mr. Wang, China’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

said in a Twitter post that the “general impression is positive.” He said this meeting would be followed “by a number of informal meetings in different formats, including at expert level.”

The talks have been overshadowed in recent days by Iran’s response to an attack at its Natanz uranium-enrichment facility on Sunday. Tehran decided to further increase enrichment to 60 percent, a major step toward the 90 percent enrichment that is considered suitable for a nuclear bomb and a flagrant breach of the limits of the 2015 accord. Iran also said it would replace damaged centrifuges at the Natanz facility with more advanced models that were banned under the accord.

The Natanz attack was said to have been carried out by Israel, which has regularly criticized the 2015 deal as weak and unlikely to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. U.S. officials have said Israel was responsible for the attack and have denied any American involvement.

The meeting in Vienna involved senior diplomats from Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia under the chairmanship of the European Union. Senior American officials are in a nearby hotel, because President Donald J. Trump withdrew the United States from the accord in 2018.

The three European nations, joined by the United States, have sharply criticized Iran’s moves in recent days, calling them “provocative” and “particularly regrettable” in the face of progress at the Vienna meetings.

“Iran’s dangerous recent communication is contrary to the constructive spirit and good faith of these discussions,” they noted in a statement, adding that Iran’s enrichment decision was “a serious development since the production of highly enriched uranium constitutes an important step in the production of a nuclear weapon.”

On Wednesday, the U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, criticized Iran’s intentions. “I have to tell you, this step calls into question Iran’s seriousness with regard to the nuclear talks, just as it underscores the imperative of returning to mutual compliance” with the nuclear deal.

Iran maintains that its nuclear program is purely civilian.

The talks are designed to bring the United States back into compliance with the 2015 deal by negotiating what economic sanctions should be lifted. A second working group is focusing on how to bring Iran back into compliance, which Iran has deliberately broken as a “remedial” measure since the economic benefits of the accord have been denied it.

Those talks are said to have been positive so far, but Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was dismissive of them in comments made on Wednesday marking the first day of Ramadan in Iran. He said it was “not worth looking at” initial offers for the lifting of sanctions, saying that “the offers they provide are usually arrogant and humiliating.”

He also warned that time could be running out. “The talks shouldn’t become talks of attrition,” Ayatollah Khamenei said. “They shouldn’t be in a way that parties drag on and prolong the talks. This is harmful to the country.”

He also said that Iran was prepared to return quickly to compliance if agreement could be found in Vienna and again denied that Iran would ever build nuclear weapons.

The leader of the Iranian delegation, Abbas Araghchi, a deputy foreign minister, has been busy in Vienna holding bilateral talks in the last few days, rejecting speculation that Iran might withdraw from the negotiations. The impression among other diplomats involved is that Iran is committed to a deal, as is the United States.

How to get there and how to synchronize the moves of both sides in an atmosphere of mistrust is the task of the Vienna meetings. Whether that succeeds, or how long it will take, is unclear. But both Iran and the United States have said that they want a successful conclusion.

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Iran’s Top Leader Signals Nuclear Talks to Resume Despite Natanz Sabotage

Iran’s top leader said Wednesday that his country would keep negotiating with world powers over how to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal, quashing speculation that Iran’s delegation would boycott or quit participating in protest of the apparent Israeli sabotage of a major uranium enrichment site this past weekend.

The declaration by the top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last word on security matters in the country of 80 million, came three days after an explosive blast at the Natanz enrichment site plunged the heavily guarded facility into a blackout and disabled or destroyed hundreds of underground centrifuges used to process uranium into fuel.

Suspicion for the destruction immediately fell on Israel, which has sabotaged the Natanz site before. Israel neither confirmed nor denied the accusation but intelligence officials said it was a clandestine Israeli operation.

Outraged and embarrassed over such a security lapse, Iran vowed on Tuesday to triple its uranium enrichment purity — the most brazen departure yet from its commitments under the nuclear deal.

also said they would resume, at 12:30 p.m. local time on Thursday.

The discussions, which began early this month and recessed last Friday, are intended to map out a plan for the return of both Iran and the United States to compliance with the deal, which has teetered on collapse since President Donald J. Trump abruptly withdrew the United States from it three years ago.

Twitter that process could begin soon.

Iran has said that all of its departures from compliance with the nuclear agreement could be easily and quickly reversed when the United States rescinds its sanctions.

carried out a series of raids and attacks targeting Iran’s nuclear scientists and its uranium enrichment facilities.

Although American and Israeli governments have collaborated before to counter what they see as Iran’s militaristic nuclear ambitions, Washington denied any role in Sunday’s blackout. The Biden administration has said it remains committed to reviving the nuclear agreement.

Iran and the United States have not been negotiating directly in the talks in Vienna, which are led by the European Union. Instead the other participants in the 2015 accord — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — are acting as intermediaries.

Before the blackout at Natanz, European officials maintained that both Iran and the United States were invested in the success of the talks.

The foreign ministries of Germany, France and Britain issued a joint a statement on Wednesday condemning Iran’s uranium enrichment intentions and said that they “reject all escalatory measures by any actor.”

“This is a serious development since the production of highly enriched uranium constitutes an important step in the production of a nuclear weapon,” the statement read. “Iran has no credible civilian need for enrichment at this level.”

The talks adjourned on a positive note last week. They were scheduled to continue this week after all parties agreed to move forward.

according to senior diplomats who were involved. Two working groups were formed to discuss sanctions and uranium enrichment, both tasked with mapping out a plan to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance with the 2015 deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Steven Erlanger and Rick Gladstone contributed reporting.

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Iran Vows to Increase Uranium Enrichment After Attack on Nuclear Site

Iran said Tuesday that it would begin enriching uranium to a level of 60 percent purity, three times the current level and much closer to that needed to make a bomb, though American officials doubt the country has the ability to produce a weapon in the near future.

Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, did not give a reason for the shift, but it appeared to be retaliation for an Israeli attack on Iran’s primary nuclear fuel production plant as well as a move to strengthen Iran’s hand in nuclear talks in Vienna.

Mr. Araghchi said that Iran had informed the International Atomic Energy Agency of its decision in a letter on Tuesday.

Iran also attacked an Israeli-owned cargo ship off the coast of the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, officials said, the latest clash in its maritime shadow war with Israel. The attack was another sign of increased tensions in the region but was reported to have caused little to no damage.

threat assessment report released on Tuesday.

The report said, however, that “if Tehran does not receive sanctions relief” — as Iran has demanded — “Iranian officials probably will consider options ranging from further enriching uranium up to 60 percent to designing and building a new” nuclear reactor that could, over the long term, produce bomb-grade material. That would take years.

The assessment would seem to give President Biden some breathing room as he enters negotiations in Vienna aimed at restoring some form of the nuclear agreement.

the attack on Sunday at the nuclear fuel-production center at Natanz, where an explosion knocked the facility offline. He said that Iran would install an additional 1,000 centrifuges there to increase the plant’s capacity by 50 percent.

An Iranian official also provided a new estimate of the damage caused by the attack, saying that several thousand centrifuges were “completely destroyed.” That level of destruction takes out a large portion of Iran’s ability to enrich uranium.

But the full extent of the damage is unknown, and Iran presumably is vulnerable to continued attacks on its nuclear infrastructure. Until the electric power systems are rebuilt at Natanz, it would be impossible to make new centrifuges spin.

Iran is expected to replace the first-generation centrifuges damaged in the Israeli attack with more advanced, more efficient models.

uses about 1,000 centrifuges.

To raise the level to 60 percent purity, Iran would have to turn over roughly half of those machines onto the new enrichment job. Purifying it to 90 percent would require another hundred or so machines.

apparent mine attack by Israel on an Iranian military vessel in the Red Sea, the American official said.

A cargo ship owned by the same company, the Helios Ray, was attacked by Iran earlier this year.

Iranian officials also revealed more details about the Natanz attack on Tuesday, suggesting that the damage was greater than Iran previously reported.

Alireza Zakani, a member of Parliament and head of its research center, said on state television that “several thousand of our centrifuges have been completely destroyed,” representing a large portion of the country’s ability to enrich uranium.

He described official statements on Monday that the facility would be quickly repaired as false promises.

Foreign intelligence officials have said it could take many months for Iran to undo the damage.

Iranian officials have been livid about the security lapses that have allowed a series of attacks on Iran’s nuclear program over the past year, ranging from sabotage of nuclear facilities to the theft of classified documents to the assassination of Iran’s chief nuclear scientist. Most of these attacks were presumed to have been carried out by Israel.

Mr. Zakani criticized Iran’s security apparatus as lax, saying it had allowed spies to “roam free,” turning Iran into “a haven for spies.”

He said that in one incident, some nuclear equipment belonging to a major facility was sent abroad for repair and that when it returned the equipment was packed with 300 pounds of explosives. In another incident, he said, explosives were placed in a desk and smuggled inside the nuclear facility.

Iran has long maintained that its nuclear program is peaceful and aimed at energy development. Israel claims that Iran had and may still have an active nuclear weapons program and considers the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat.

The nuclear talks that began in Vienna last week have been delayed because a member of the European Union delegation tested positive for the coronavirus. The talks could resume as early as Thursday if the member tests negative.

Patrick Kingsley, Ronen Bergman and Steven Erlanger contributed reporting.

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Japan’s Plan for Fukushima Wastewater Meets a Wall of Mistrust in Asia

TOKYO — In late 2019, the Japanese government convened diplomats from 22 countries for a briefing on its handling of more than a million tons of wastewater from Fukushima’s crippled nuclear reactors.

Storage space was rapidly running out, the authorities explained, and they were considering several solutions. Among them was removing the most harmful radioactive material from the water and then gradually releasing it into the ocean. The diplomats raised no objections, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said.

On Tuesday, when Japan officially announced that it would put the plan into action, the knives came out. South Korea denounced it as “utterly intolerable” and summoned the Japanese ambassador. China cited “grave concerns.” Taiwan also raised strong objections.

Japan has dismissed criticism of its plan as unscientific, saying that the treated water is well within safety standards, and pointing out that such releases into oceans are routine around the world. But its argument, as the reaction on Tuesday showed, leaves Tokyo a long way from winning its neighbors’ trust, a challenge made all the more difficult by growing regional tensions on a range of issues.

Japan’s handling of the nuclear disaster. China and South Korea are among 15 countries or regions that have banned or restricted food imports from Fukushima, despite the Japanese government’s abundant efforts to demonstrate that products from the area, from rice to fish, are safe to eat.

International advocacy groups, like Greenpeace, have also criticized the government’s decision, arguing that it is a cost-saving measure that ignores the potential environmental harms. The group advocates building additional storage facilities for the waste instead.

Even at home, the idea of pouring water, treated or not, from the crippled plant into the ocean is unpopular. In a national poll late last year by the Japanese daily The Asahi Shimbun, 55 percent of respondents opposed the plan.

It is even less welcome in Fukushima itself, where residents fear that the mere perception of risk will destroy the local fishing industry, which has been hoping for a rebound after a decade of self-imposed limits.

the 2011 earthquake and tsunami generates more than 150 additional tons a day.

Under the plan, powerful filters will be used to remove all of the radioactive material from the water except for tritium, an isotope of hydrogen that experts say is not harmful to human health in small doses. Radiation levels in the resulting product, the government says, are lower than those found in drinking water. Japan intends to start releasing the water in 2023, in a process that is expected to take decades.

In an effort to ease minds at home, the authorities have placed dosimeters around the prefecture to monitor radiation levels and conduct routine screenings of seafood from the region. The government has held public hearings on the plan in Fukushima and in Tokyo.

The authorities say that they have also discussed the issue extensively with other countries and at international forums. In a news briefing on Tuesday, a Japanese official said that the country had held 108 group briefings for diplomats in Japan and had met with representatives from China and South Korea on the day of the announcement to explain the decision.

The United States came out in support of the plan. The International Atomic Energy Agency also endorsed it, saying in a statement that it was “in line with practice globally, even though the large amount of water at the Fukushima plant makes it a unique and complex case.”

The gap between such reassurances and the strident reactions closer to home was striking.

The outrage in the region is “quite understandable,” said Nanako Shimizu, an associate professor of international relations at Utsunomiya University in Japan who is opposed to the plan.

“If South Korea or China announced the same thing, I’m sure that the Japanese government and the vast majority of the Japanese people would also object,” she said.

Governments in the region most likely feel domestic pressure to take a strong stance, said Eunjung Lim, an associate professor of international relations at Kongju National University in Gongju, South Korea, who specializes in Japan and South Korea.

Whether their worries are rational or not, many people in the region “are going to be very, very anxious about what would happen if this radioactive material came into our near seas and contaminated our resources,” she said.

Even under the best of circumstances, Japan would find it “really difficult to persuade its neighbors to accept this kind of decision, because obviously, it’s not our fault. It’s Japan’s fault, so why do we have to experience this kind of difficulty?” she added.

Regional tensions have made surrounding countries even less receptive to the plan. In recent years, territorial disputes and disagreements over trade and historical issues related to World War II have strained Japan’s relations with China and South Korea, with spillover effects on government dialogues across a broad range of issues.

China warned Japan on Tuesday against taking any decision without further consultation with the international community, saying that it “reserved the right to take further action.”

In its statement, South Korea accused Japan of taking “unilateral action” without seeking consultation and understanding with South Korea, which “lies closest to Japan.”

Some in Japan believe that such complaints should be met with more than scientific arguments. Shunichi Tanaka, a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, said that the criticism smacked of hypocrisy.

South Korea itself operates four heavy-water reactors that routinely discharge water containing tritium at higher levels than those planned in Fukushima, he said in a recent interview.

“When South Korea makes claims like this, we shouldn’t be quiet, we need to properly refute them,” he said.

But the challenge Japan faces is not just on the global stage. At home, many are reluctant to trust the government or Tepco, the nuclear plant’s operator.

A parliamentary commission found that the meltdowns had been the result of a lack of oversight and of collusion between the government, the plant’s owner and regulators. And Tepco was forced to retract assertions that it had treated most of the wastewater. In fact, it had completely processed only about one-fifth, a problem that arose from a failure to change filters in the decontamination system frequently enough.

Ultimately, Japan is in a battle to alter perceptions, whether of the trustworthiness of its own government or of the risk posed by the treated water, said Hirohiko Fukushima, a professor at Chuo Gakuin University specializing in local governance issues.

In Fukushima, the government’s response to local concerns has often come across as highhanded, he said. Changing that view will require the authorities to improve transparency around their decisions and build new relationships, he said.

“From my perspective,” he added, “it’s probably difficult for Japan to convince foreign countries when it can’t even convince its own people.”

Choe Sang-Hun contributed reporting from Seoul. Albee Zhang contributed research from Shanghai.

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Japan to Start Releasing Radioactive Water From Fukushima in 2 Years

Japan said on Tuesday that it had decided to gradually release tons of treated wastewater from the ruined Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the ocean, describing it as the best option for disposal despite fierce opposition from fishing crews at home and concern from governments abroad.

The plan to release the water in two years was approved during a cabinet meeting of ministers early Tuesday.

Disposal of the wastewater has been long delayed by public opposition and by safety concerns. But the space used to store the water is expected to run out next year, and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told lawmakers on Monday that the ocean release was “unavoidable” and could no longer be postponed.

The Fukushima crisis was set off in March 2011 by a huge earthquake and tsunami that ripped through northeastern Japan and killed more than 19,000 people. The subsequent meltdown of three of the plant’s six reactors was the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Tens of thousands of people fled the area around the plant or were evacuated, in many cases never to return.

Ten years later, the cleanup is far from finished at the disabled plant, which is operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company. To keep the three damaged reactor cores from melting, cooling water is pumped through them continuously. The water is then sent through a powerful filtration system that is able to remove all of the radioactive material except for tritium, an isotope of hydrogen that experts say is not harmful to human health in small doses.

said last year that both options were “technically feasible.” Nuclear power plants around the world routinely discharge treated wastewater containing tritium into the sea.

But the Japanese government’s plan faces strong opposition from local officials and fishing crews, who say that it would add to consumer fears about the safety of Fukushima seafood. Catch levels in the area are already a small fraction of what they were before the disaster.

expressed concerns.

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Iran and U.S. Agree on Path Back to Nuclear Deal

The new working groups are intended to create a road map for a synchronized return of both countries to compliance. But even if there is agreement, verification will take some time given the technical complications and the absence of trust on both sides.

For instance, companies that want to do business with Iran, and that were burned badly when Mr. Trump reimposed powerful American sanctions, will want to be sure that a new administration won’t reimpose sanctions. Iran will want to see economic benefits, not just the promise of them, and the United States will want the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that Iran has returned to compliance and is not cheating, as it has done in the past.

In Vienna, Iran met with the other current members of the deal — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, under the chairmanship of the European Union — in a grand hotel ballroom, while the American team, led by special envoy Robert Malley, worked separately in a nearby hotel. Iran has refused to meet directly with the United States, so the Europeans have been undertaking a kind of shuttle diplomacy.

The United States also wants to convince Iran to negotiate longer time limits for the accord and to begin further talks on limiting Iran’s missiles and support for allies and Shia militias through the region, including in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Iran has said that it has no interest in considering further negotiations until the United States restores the status quo ante and rejoins the deal.

More broadly, American officials are trying to gauge whether the United States and Iran can agree on how each can come back into compliance with the nuclear deal — or, at least, work toward bridging any gaps in a mutual understanding.

Iran was represented by Abbas Araghchi, the deputy foreign minister, who was crucial to negotiating the 2015 deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or J.C.P.O.A., with the administration of President Barack Obama and Mr. Biden, then vice president.

Mr. Araghchi said in a statement after the talks that lifting U.S. sanctions would be “the first and most necessary step in reviving the J.C.P.O.A. The Islamic Republic of Iran is fully ready to stop its retaliation nuclear activity and return to its full commitments as soon as U.S. sanctions are lifted and verified.”

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