The United States is “making decisions” and preparing “for a world in which there is no return” to the Iran nuclear deal, a senior State Department official said Saturday, following last week’s disappointing negotiations over resuming the 2015 accord.
“We’ve been waiting patiently for five and a half months” since Tehran suspended talks in June, the official said. “The Iranian government said it needed time to get ready.”
“What we’ve seen over the last week or so is what getting ready meant for them … it meant continuing to accelerate their nuclear program in particularly provocative ways” to gain leverage in extracting unreasonable concessions far beyond the scope of the original agreement, the official said.
European and Iranian officials have said they expect to return to the negotiating table next week.
But the “date of resumption matters far less to us than if Iran is prepared to come back with a serious attitude,” the senior official said. “So far what we’ve seen … unfortunately suggests the opposite.”
While it has not ruled out military action, the Biden administration has emphasized that it, along with partners in Europe, has a number of what the official called “tools” to deploy if Iran refuses to come back into compliance with the agreement.
They include additional U.S. sanctions, as well as the reimposition of international sanctions that were lifted as part of the original deal. The official declined to say whether the administration would crack down harder on sanctions-violating Iranian oil exports to China, to which it has largely turned a blind eye until now.
If Iran’s nuclear advances make it “impossible to come back to the deal, then there’ll have to be other diplomatic outcomes that we’d be prepared to pursue,” said the official, who spoke in a briefing for reporters under rules of anonymity set by the State Department.
“Of course … we will have to use other tools, tools that you could imagine, to try to increase the pressure on Iran to come back to a reasonable stance at the diplomatic table.”
Israel, which considers a nuclear Iran an existential threat, is believed to have already conducted a number of strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said last week that President Joe Biden should end the talks and not succumb to Tehran’s “nuclear blackmail.”
Iran has said its nuclear program is designed only for peaceful purposes. But Israel, and many nuclear experts, warn that it is increasingly close to becoming a “threshold state” that has the capability of building a nuclear weapon.
The goal of the talks is to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, signed by Iran and world powers, including Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the United States. It lifted sanctions that targeted Iran’s nuclear activities, in return for strict and verifiable limits on those activities.
President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the accord in 2018 and imposed massive new sanctions. Iran, in return, began a major expansion of its nuclear program, including the use of sophisticated centrifuges enriching uranium ever closer to what is required to develop a nuclear weapon.
Through six rounds of talks last spring under the Biden administration, tentative compromises were reached on which U.S. sanctions would be lifted, and which Iranian activities would be halted and reversed. At the time Iran suspended the talks, following the election of a new, more hard-line president, U.S. officials said they believed that a final deal was within reach.
But Tehran’s new negotiators returned to the table Monday with “proposals that walked back … any of the compromises Iran” had previously floated, “pocketed all the compromises that others, and the U.S. in particular, had made, and then asked for more,” the State Department official said.
At the same time, the International Atomic Energy Agency, charged with monitoring Iran’s compliance, said last week that significant enrichment expansion had occurred on the eve of the negotiating session.
“If Iran continues with this approach, we will adjust in ways that, I think, are pretty self-evident,” the official said.
During the hiatus in the talks, the United States conducted extensive diplomacy with the other signers of the deal, and with Iran’s neighbors in the Middle East. It appeared to make headway in the Persian Gulf, where Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others — who opposed the original agreement — have indicated they believe a return to its terms is better than no deal at all.
The official said that Russia and China were “also quite taken aback by the degree to which Iran had walked back its own compromises and then doubled down on the requests they made of us and our partners.”
But both Russia and China have their own priorities in the region, as well as their own interests in undermining U.S. goals.
Russia’s chief negotiator in the Vienna talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, wrote on Twitter on Saturday that “disappointment” in the talks “seems to be premature.”
“In multilateral diplomacy there is the rule: nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. So changes are possible as a matter of principle.”
The “technical break” in the talks until next week, Ulyanov said, was “an opportunity for each participant, including Iran and the U.S., to consult with the capitals and to think how to proceed further, taking into account the positions of other counterparts.”
Asked about differences between the United States and Israel, the State Department official said, “We don’t view our job as trying to calm Israel down … our job is not to stop them, our job is to work together toward our common objective” and to “align our policies as much as possible.”
“But at the end of the day, Israel has its national interests that it will defend,” the official said.