This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Three European powers said on December 14 that talks with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal are “rapidly reaching the end of the road,” while Tehran accused Western powers of playing a “blame game.”
The comments suggest talks between Iran and the remaining parties to the agreement — Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia – are nearing collapse some two weeks after they resumed in Vienna after a five-month hiatus, with the United States participating indirectly.
“Iran has walked back hard-fought compromises reached after many weeks of challenging negotiations, while at the same time presenting additional maximalist demands,” France’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nicolas de Riviere, said at the world body, reading a joint statement from Britain, France, and Germany — known as the E3.
“We are nearing the point where Iran’s escalation of its nuclear program will have completely hollowed out the JCPOA,” he added, referring to the formal name of the pact.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), under which Iran curtailed its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of global sanctions, began unraveling in 2018 when former U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal and reimposed sanctions, prompting Tehran to gradually exceed limits imposed under the pact.
Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, says the United States is ready to rejoin the JCPOA provided Iran resumes observing the deal’s conditions.
The remaining parties to the deal are holding their seventh round of talks in Vienna, but no apparent progress has been made due to what Western officials say are Tehran’s “maximalist positions” and reneging on compromises reached in the previous six sessions. Iran’s new positions and demands come after hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi was elected president in June.
There remain considerable gaps between Iran and the other parties over the speed and scope of sanctions relief and technical aspects of how and when Iran will reverse its nuclear steps.
Iran is demanding the lifting of all U.S. sanctions in a verifiable process. Washington has said it would remove sanctions “inconsistent” with the JCPOA if Iran resumed compliance, but there are questions over how the Biden administration can remove a web of Trump-imposed sanctions. The United States has also implied that sanctions on Iran for terrorism or human rights abuses would remain in place.
Iran is also demanding guarantees that Washington will not withdraw from any future agreement, but Biden can’t commit to this because the nuclear deal is a nonbinding political understanding and not a legally binding treaty passed by Congress.
Meanwhile, Iran has rapidly advanced its nuclear program and gained technical knowledge that can’t be reversed.
Iran’s breakout time to produce the fissile material for one nuclear bomb is now only one month, if the government were to make a political decision to do so, according to the U.S.-based Arms Control Association.
Iran has also limited access given to UN nuclear watchdog inspectors under the nuclear deal, restricting their visits to declared nuclear sites only. Iranian officials maintain the country’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but the level of uranium enrichment is well beyond that needed for civilian use.
“Iran’s nuclear program has never been more advanced than it is today. This nuclear escalation is undermining international peace and security and the global nonproliferation system,” France’s de Riviere said.
“Iran’s continued nuclear escalation means that we are rapidly reaching the end of the road,” he added.
Iran’s chief negotiator at the talks, Ali Bagheri, said earlier on December 14 that “some actors persist in their blame game habit, instead of real diplomacy.”
Iran “proposed our ideas early, and worked constructively and flexibly to narrow gaps,” Bagheri wrote on Twitter, adding that “diplomacy is a two-way street.”
U.S. officials say they won’t allow Iran to draw out negotiations while continuing to advance its nuclear program, warning that Washington will pursue other options if diplomacy fails.
“We continue in this hour, on this day, to pursue diplomacy because it remains at this moment the best option, but we are actively engaging with allies and partners on alternatives,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a visit to Indonesia on December 14.
The top U.S. diplomat echoed concerns from Britain, France, and Germany, saying “time is running out, that Iran is still not engaged in real negotiations.”