JCPOA withdrawal left 'unconstrained' nuclear Iran - US official

“Every day that goes by is just further proof and demonstration of how self-defeating the decision to withdraw from the JCPOA was [It] left an Iranian nuclear program that is unconstrained."

 Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Enrique Mora and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani and delegations wait for the start of a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria December 17, 2021 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Enrique Mora and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani and delegations wait for the start of a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria December 17, 2021
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Time is quickly running out to revive the Iran deal, European Union envoy Enrique Mora told reporters on Friday, after indirect talks in Vienna were paused.

“We don’t have months, we rather have weeks to have an agreement,” Mora said at a news conference after a meeting that formally ended the seventh round of talks.

Mora, who is coordinating the talks, said he hoped they would resume this year. Some officials have mentioned December 27 as a tentative date.

The seventh round of talks have made little discernible progress since they resumed more than two weeks ago for the first time since Iran’s hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, was elected in June.

A senior US administration official told reporters on Friday that the seventh round of indirect negotiations with Iran “was better than it might have been” but “worse than it should have been,” which leaves the US “in an uncertain position as to whether we can get to where we need to go in the short time that we have to get there.”

A general view of Palais Coburg, the site of a meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in Vienna, Austria, November 29, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/LISI NIESNER)A general view of Palais Coburg, the site of a meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in Vienna, Austria, November 29, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/LISI NIESNER)

“Every day that goes by is just further proof and demonstration of how self-defeating the decision to withdraw from the JCPOA was,” the official said, because it “left an Iranian nuclear program that is unconstrained. It left us with less visibility and monitoring of their program. And that’s why the first objective of the Biden administration is to see whether we can get back to mutual compliance.”

According to the official, “there was some modest progress.” The official said that thanks to the efforts of International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi, along with “a couple of others, including Russia, an agreement was reached that will allow the IAEA to reinstall its cameras. That’s an important step, a welcomed step, but it’s not a step that we should exaggerate.

“All of this takes place under the circumstance where time is running out because of the pace of Iran’s nuclear program. And the secretary of state said many times that we cannot accept a situation where Iran is dragging its feet at the negotiating table and accelerating the pace with its nuclear program.

“There’s going to have to be an acceleration. Iran will have to come back with a clear set of issues and a realistic position on how to resolve it. So we made some progress, not enough certainty in a pace that it will not be sufficient to get to where we need to go.”

The negotiations are “not going well” in that the US does not yet have a path back into the deal, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in Washington.

Tehran’s envoys have sought changes to the outline of an agreement that had taken shape in six previous rounds of talks, leaving the negotiations largely deadlocked while Western powers warn that time is running out to rein in Iran’s fast-advancing nuclear activities.

“There has been some technical progress in the last 24 hours, but this only takes us back nearer to where the talks stood in June,” negotiators from France, Britain and Germany, the so-called E3, said in a statement, describing the break as “a disappointing pause in negotiations.”

Most experts now say breakout time is less than it was before the JCPOA agreement.

“We hope that Iran is in a position to resume the talks quickly, and to engage constructively so that talks can move at a faster pace,” the E3 negotiators said. “There are weeks, not months, before the JCPOA’s core non-proliferation benefits are lost. We are rapidly reaching the end of the road for this negotiation.”

Speaking to a US Council on Foreign Relations webinar, Sullivan said the negotiations have “proven more difficult over the course of this year than we would have liked to have seen” as Iran has “raced” its nuclear program forward.

Washington has conveyed through the Europeans and directly to Iran its “alarm” over the “forward progress” it has made, he continued, declining to elaborate on the details of those messages.

Iranian officials did not explain why they had requested a break other than to say there would be consultations in Tehran.

“If the other party accepts Iran’s logical views, the next round of talks can be the last round,” Iran’s chief negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani told reporters.

Israel opposed the Iran deal when it was signed, and has opposed Biden’s attempt to revive it. Among its concerns are the deal’s failure to tackle Iran’s non-nuclear military aggression and its global terror activity.

Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan took a group of fellow ambassadors to the UN to the northern border over the weekend to underscore the danger Iranian proxy groups, such as Hezbollah, pose to Israel.

“Not only does the old agreement not block Iran’s path from becoming a nuclear threshold state, but it also does not address the formidable threats that Iran supports in the region, like Hezbollah, which is right on Israel’s border,” Erdan said. “We expect the UN and the international community to put heavy pressure on Iran to reach a diplomatic agreement that addresses both of these threats and Iran’s missile program.”

Six previous rounds of indirect EU brokered talks had been held between the Biden administration and the previous Iranian government earlier this year in an attempt to bring back into force the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the Iran deal.

Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium during the period of the talks has moved it closer to weapons-grade capacity. This has created an urgency to conclude the talks before the deal simply becomes irrelevant.

The 2015 deal lifted sanctions against Tehran in return for tough restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities, aimed at extending the time Iran would need to obtain enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb if it chose to – the so-called breakout time – from roughly two to three months to at least a year.

In 2018, president Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the accord and reimposed punishing sanctions against Tehran. Iran responded by breaching many of the deal’s nuclear restrictions and pressing ahead with its atomic activities.

US President Joe Biden has sought to revive the deal originally signed between Tehran and the six world powers: the US, Russia, China, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.