Renewed deal will only keep Iran ‘several months’ from a bomb, Malley says

The EU said on Monday it had put forward a "final" text following four days of indirect talks between the U.S. and Iranian officials in Vienna. 

An Iranian Army paratrooper flies with the Iranian flag during a military exercise dubbed 'Zulfiqar 1400', in the coastal area of the Gulf of Oman, Iran, November 7, 2021. (photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
An Iranian Army paratrooper flies with the Iranian flag during a military exercise dubbed 'Zulfiqar 1400', in the coastal area of the Gulf of Oman, Iran, November 7, 2021.
(photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

A return to the Iran nuclear deal would only keep Iran “several months” away from breakout time, US Special Envoy Rob Malley said in an interview on Friday, as opposed to the original 2015 agreement that was meant to ensure it was a year away.

“The main... constraint that puts Iran several months away from having enough fissile material for one bomb... would last until 2031,” Malley said, responding to a question on PBS NewsHour as to whether the deal is worth returning to if restrictions on the manufacture of advanced centrifuges expires next year.

“The situation we’re in today, as a result of the decision [by the Trump administration] to withdraw from the deal, is Iran is only a handful of weeks away from having enough fissile material for a bomb. So again, we have to compare this to the reality we’re living today, if we could get a deal that would put Iran back several months away from being able to have enough fissile material for a bomb,” Malley emphasized.

This is not the first time the US and other parties to the negotiations with Iran have said that a return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action could not keep the Islamic Republic a year away from breakout, though previous estimations had put it at half a year. Several months is likely fewer than six.

Iran built and installed hundreds of centrifuges this year that are so advanced they cannot be dismantled and sent to another country if a deal is reached, which reduces the time it would take to enrich enough fissile material for a bomb. That point, known as breakout time, does not include the additional time it takes to assemble a bomb, which is generally presumed to be short.

 THEN-US PRESIDENT Donald Trump holds up a proclamation in 2018, declaring his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA nuclear agreement. The nuclear deal now taking shape is probably the lesser of the evils given Trump’s reckless pullout from the original pact. (credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS) THEN-US PRESIDENT Donald Trump holds up a proclamation in 2018, declaring his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA nuclear agreement. The nuclear deal now taking shape is probably the lesser of the evils given Trump’s reckless pullout from the original pact. (credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)

Malley also said that the US will not press for the International Atomic Energy Agency to close its investigations of undeclared nuclear sites in Iran, following a report in The Wall Street Journal that the European Union wrote into what it has called the final text of the Iran deal that it would push the IAEA to end its probe if Iran cooperates.

Western parties to the talks – France, Germany, the UK and the US – had previously maintained the importance of the IAEA’s independence.

“I know there’s been some reporting to the contrary,” Malley said. ““Our position is transparent and it’s clear for everyone to hear – which is [that] we’re not going to put any pressure on the International Atomic Energy Agency to close these outstanding issues.”

The probes “will be closed when Iran provides the technically credible answers that the IAEA has requested of them... but not before,” Malley emphasized.

The IAEA investigation seeks answers from Iran as to where the uranium particles are now, in order to make sure that the nuclear material found at undeclared sites is “accounted for and that it’s under what is called safeguards,” the envoy explained.

Malley also denied a report in Politico over the weekend that said the EU also proposed to weaken US sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“To be clear: We have not engaged in any negotiation about changing due diligence, know-your-customer, or other US sanctions compliance standards for sanctions that would remain under a mutual return to full JCPOA implementation. Any report to the contrary is flat out wrong,” Malley tweeted.

In the interview, Malley said that European and other companies “have to respect our sanctions.”

The envoy declined to answer a question as to how much sanctions relief Iran would get in a revived JCPOA, including a specific reference to tens of billions of dollars of assets.

However, he did say Iran would be able to collect its assets in bank accounts worldwide and to sell oil freely.

“Those sanctions were put in place to get around to agree to curb its nuclear program and to make sure that Iran cannot acquire a nuclear weapon, and we have lived the opposite,” Malley argued. “For the last several years, since president Trump decided to withdraw from the deal, we have seen Iran with an unconstrained nuclear program and with a more aggressive regional behavior. So that experiment has failed.”

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said on Friday, according to state-affiliated Tasnim News, that Iran “will not tie the country’s progress and the settlement of the problems to the JCPOA.”

At the same time, however, Raisi said Iran will remain at the negotiating table.

The statement came as the EU has said the proposal it tabled in Vienna earlier this month is the “final” text.

A senior EU official said no more changes could be made to the text, which has been under negotiation for 15 months – and that he expected a final decision from the parties within a “very, very few weeks.”

A senior Iranian diplomat said that the nuclear deal “can be acceptable if it provides assurances” on Tehran’s key demands, the state news agency IRNA said on Friday.

IRNA quoted the unidentified Iranian diplomat as saying Tehran was reviewing the proposal.

“Proposals by the EU can be acceptable if they provide Iran with assurance on the issues of safeguards, sanctions and guarantees,” the diplomat said.

In addition to dropping the IAEA probe, the Islamic Republic has sought to obtain guarantees that no future US president would renege on the deal if it were revived, as then-president Donald Trump did in 2018 and restored harsh US sanctions on Iran.

However, President Joe Biden cannot provide such ironclad assurances because the deal is a political understanding rather than a legally binding treaty.

A Shi’ite cleric, in a sermon at Friday prayers that typically echo the state line, said Tehran insisted on obtaining verifiable guarantees that US sanctions would be lifted under a revived deal, according to Iranian state TV.

Iranian officials said they would convey their “additional views and considerations” to the EU, which coordinates the talks, after consultations in Tehran.

The background to the deal

The 2015 pact seemed near revival in March. But 11 months of indirect talks between Tehran and the Biden administration in Vienna were thrown into disarray chiefly over Iran’s insistence that Washington remove the IRGC from the US Foreign Terrorist Organizations list.

On Wednesday, the United States charged an IRGC member with plotting to murder John Bolton, a national security advisor to Trump, though Washington said it did not believe the charges should affect the nuclear talks with Tehran.

Under the 2015 agreement, Iran agreed to temporarily curb its disputed uranium enrichment program, a possible pathway to nuclear weapons, in return for relief from US, EU and UN sanctions.