The United States “will know sooner rather than later” whether it is possible to salvage the Iran nuclear deal, a senior State Department official said Monday, adding that some of the “most critical decisions” have yet to be made.
“We will know sooner rather than later whether we are back in the JCPOA, the US is back in the JCPOA and Iran is back in fully implementing its obligations under the JCPOA, or whether we are going to have to face a different reality of mounting tensions and crisis,” the official said, using an abbreviation for the formal name of the deal: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The official, speaking to reporters on a call after the latest round of talks in Vienna, Austria, had adjourned Friday, said the negotiations in January “were among the most intensive that we’ve had to date.”
“We made progress narrowing down the list of differences to just the key priorities on all sides. And that’s why now is the time for political decisions,” they said.
But the official also said that there are “still significant gaps” and a deal will be salvaged only if decisions are made quickly.
The official reiterated that there are mere weeks left to reach a deal. They noted assessments that Iran has made developments to its nuclear program that have shortened the amount of time it would take to have enough weapons-grade fissile material for a bomb – “we’re talking about weeks, not months,” they said, but noted “that’s different from the timeline for weaponization, for having a bomb.” Iran has said it is not seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
The official would not go into details about the remaining sticking points, telling reporters they “won’t negotiate in public,” but added that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” The US abandoned the 2015 agreement under the Trump administration, and Tehran has increasingly moved out of compliance with the terms of the deal.
The talks in Vienna are expected to resume this week.
Former National Security Council Director for Counterproliferation Eric Brewer said it is “the multibillion-dollar question” whether the US and Iran will be able to reach an agreement to return to the deal.
“I wouldn’t want to put a percentage on either outcome. There’s too many unknowns right now,” Brewer told CNN on Monday.
He noted that if Tehran’s demands – that the US give legal guarantees that a future administration will not withdraw again from the deal and sanctions relief beyond the scope of the 2015 agreement – are taken at face value, “it’s really hard to see how a deal gets made.”
“But that opens up the question of how flexible Iran is on some of these positions,” Brewer said.
Brewer said he believed direct negotiations between the US and Iran would be helpful, and the senior State Department official said direct US-Iran meetings would be a “logical step to take” if they are trying to determine all possible actions to revive the deal, saying that “it would be deeply unfortunate if that opportunity were lost in part because there has not been the opportunity and the ability for Iran and the US to have a direct conversation.” So far, all the discussions between US and Iranian representatives in Vienna have been indirect, through the negotiators from the other parties to the nuclear deal.
The Biden administration is prepared to deal with either situation: the pact being salvaged or the pact falling apart. If the deal falls apart, the expectation is that Iran will continue with its nuclear program at “an alarming pace” and the US would have to “fortify our response” with more economic and diplomatic pressure.
“That’s not a future that we aspire to, but it’s one that we’re ready – a path that we are ready to go down if that’s the decision that Iran makes,” the official said. “And we will use the tools that we have to ensure that our interests are preserved and that Iran can acquire a nuclear weapon.”
Brewer told CNN that he thinks “it’s pretty unlikely that the United States walks away from the table completely.”
“I think even if there is a sense that the Iranians don’t want this deal, they’re not willing to make the compromises or the JCPOA isn’t our interest, I think there will still be desire to find some type of diplomatic arrangement with Iran,” he said.
The official also noted that although the US is pursuing the release of detained Americans on a separate track from the nuclear deal discussions, “it is very hard to imagine a return to the JCPOA while four innocent Americans are behind bars or are detained in Iran.”
US citizens Baquer and Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi and Morad Tahbaz are detained in Iran.