The parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will meet again in Vienna after nearly six months to discuss a mutual return to the deal by the United States and Iran, but the break has left time to de new obstacles to take root.
Iran on Friday announced further advances in its uranium enrichment, reducing the time Tehran would need to develop a nuclear weapon, if it so chooses, an announcement clearly intended to give Iran a leverage when he arrives in Vienna for talks.
Other parties to the deal – including Germany, UK, Britain, France, China and Russia – enter talks calling for negotiations to resume where they left off arrested. European sources told CNN they expect the Iranians to treat the meeting as a “first round”. US officials have expressed similar concerns.
Tehran’s recently elected outright government will send a new set of negotiators to Vienna who have stressed the need for full US sanctions relief, not sticking to the deal, while US officials have said they had absolutely no plan to offer Iran incentives to speak. .
“The time to choose is short”
And senior US officials have repeatedly warned that if advances in Iran’s nuclear program and enrichment capacity continue unabated, they could render the benefits of the JCPOA moot – a development that would oblige states – United to pursue other options.
“We still hope that diplomacy can find a way,” said Brett McGurk, National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, at the Manama Dialogue hosted by the International Institute for Studies strategic. “But if he can’t find a way, we’re ready to use other options.”
“There is no doubt that we are not going to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, period,” McGurk said. “And when it comes to military force to change behavior, that’s a pretty fuzzy goal for a military force. When it comes to military force to prevent a country from getting a nuclear weapon, it’s a very achievable goal. “
U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley said in a tweet after a Nov. 18 meeting with Middle Eastern allies and European parties to the deal that Iran could choose the one of two paths: “the continuation of the nuclear escalation and crisis, or a mutual return to the JCPOA, creating opportunities for regional economic and diplomatic relations.”
“The time to choose is short,” wrote Malley.
Sources familiar with preparations for the talks said the parties were closely monitoring International Atomic Energy Agency director Rafael Grossi’s visit to Tehran last week, seeing it as an indication of Iran’s approach to the talks. talks in Vienna, the sources said. Grossi told the IAEA board afterwards that the talks were “inconclusive”.
One of the remaining contentious issues is that Iran is denying IAEA inspectors monitoring access to the Karaj centrifuge production facility, which reports suggest has resumed operations.
“This seriously affects the [IAEA’s] ability to restore the continuity of knowledge to [Karaj] workshop, which has been widely recognized as essential as part of a return to the JCPOA, ”Grossi said at a Board of Governors meeting on Wednesday.
The Arms Control Association noted that Iran’s refusal to allow the IAEA to install new cameras or confirm that production has not restarted could undermine attempts to revitalize the JCPOA and its strict verification regime. if it is not possible to completely complete the Iranian nuclear program files. . Tehran’s refusal to grant access to Karaj also sparks speculation and concerns about what exactly Iran is doing, the ACA said.
On Thursday, the US mission to international organizations in Vienna said at the IAEA meeting that “if Iran’s non-cooperation is not immediately corrected … in particular the restoration of the continuity of knowledge in Karaj , the Council will have no other choice but to meet again in extraordinary session before the end of this year in order to face the crisis. ”
Meanwhile, on Friday, Iran announced that its stockpile of 60% enriched uranium had increased to 66 pounds (30 kilograms) and that its amount of 20% enriched uranium had also increased. Both levels are much closer to military grade uranium which is over 90% enriched.
According to the Arms Control Association, enriching uranium to 20% “constitutes about 90% of the work required to enrich to military grade.”
As Iran’s inventories increase, according to the ACA, its break-up time, or the time it would take to produce enough military-grade enriched uranium for a bomb, decreases. The ACA estimates that Iran’s current break-up time is likely around a month, compared to 12 months when the JCPOA was fully implemented.
Enrichment was limited under the JCPOA, which the United States unilaterally left in May 2018 under former President Donald Trump. Iran restarted enrichment last year to pressure the United States to ease sanctions.
“A very uncertain proposition”
State Department spokesman Ned Price reflected the ambiguity surrounding the resumption of talks on November 22, calling the mutual return to JCPOA compliance a “very uncertain proposition.”
The next day, Price told reporters in Washington that “we hope that the new Iranian government comes to Vienna and comes to Vienna ready to negotiate in good faith to build on the progress made during the six rounds of negotiations. ”
But he added that the United States has “been very clear that we are not prepared to take unilateral steps just to grease the wheels” to restart the talks. Former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018.
Sources familiar with preparations for the talks told CNN that the United States and its allies are not at a point where they will start offering confidence-building measures to Iran, but an official said he was possible that the United States and its allies would employ them along the way. As a result, the incentives for Iran will not be discussed at this week’s meetings in Vienna, where the United States and its allies will focus on simply taking the heat and seeking to move forward where they left off there. has months, US and European sources explained.
Everyone involved in the talks is aware of the passing time. The sources told CNN that there was still time to strike a deal, but that it would likely come to an end by the end of next year. For now, they said there was no hard and fast “plan B” yet.
Critics of the deal say the Biden administration has sacrificed its leverage by easing pressure on Iran while it develops its nuclear program.
“The Iranian policy of the Biden administration fails, and without a significant course correction, this policy will result in either Iranian nuclear weapons or a war to stop this development,” said Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for the Defense of the United Nations. democracies. Dubowitz argued that the administration’s approach will allow Iran to rebuild itself to a “deadly end state” with pathways to nuclear weapons and a robust nuclear infrastructure.
“Israel will have no choice but to use military force to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons before Tehran reaches this deadly end state,” Dubowitz said.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has made it clear that Israel will be ready to act if necessary. Addressing delegates at a security conference near Tel Aviv on Tuesday, Bennett said that “if there is a return to the JCPOA, Israel is obviously not a party to the deal and is not obligated by it ”.
Bennett complained that after the signing of the nuclear deal in 2015, “the State of Israel just fell asleep. We were busy with other things. We will learn from this mistake. We will maintain our freedom of action, ”he said.
Western officials have tried to argue to the Israelis that attacks on Israel’s nuclear program are not very helpful when the overall goal is to find a comprehensive solution, and especially when the Iranians have ramped up their reconstruction capacity after the attacks. , sources close to the talks with Iran told CNN.
Western officials have also raised the danger of Iran responding with kinetic action, but sources close to the talks say Israeli officials still seem to think it’s still an effective tool to show off their capabilities.
Asked about these warnings, Price said that “Ultimately, the United States and Israel, we share a common goal here, and that is to ensure that Iran is verifiably and permanently prevented from dying. ‘get a nuclear weapon. And we continue to believe that diplomacy in coordination with our allies and partners – and this, of course, includes Israel – is the best way to achieve this goal. “
“We have also been very clear that this is not a process that can go on indefinitely and if the Iranians by their actions or by their inactions demonstrate or suggest that they are lacking in good faith, that they are lacking in this clarity of purpose, we ‘I will have to look to other means,’ Price said Tuesday. “We have a variety of other ways that we are discussing with our allies and partners.”
In recent weeks, US officials have led a wave of diplomacy with regional powers and other parties to the deal, working to forge a united front.
President Joe Biden met with European partners to discuss Iran at the June G7 meetings in the UK. In recent weeks, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also held talks with European allies, as well as with China and Russia, on Iran. And Malley recently met with Gulf countries, Israeli officials and European partners of the JCPOA.
“I think the Iranians think they have an option going east with Russia and China where they can get around the pressure of sanctions,” McGurk said on Sunday. “And that’s just plain wrong. And so I think we approach the talks at the end of November as a fairly united front with the P5 + 1.”
CNN’s Andrew Carey in Israel and CNN’s Mostafa Salem in Abu Dhabi contributed to this report.