This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
An unnamed source within the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has said that the amount of time required for Iran to develop nuclear weapons if it chooses to do so is “really short,” adding that the situation was “alarming.”
The comments came as the latest round of talks with Iran aimed at salvaging a landmark 2015 nuclear deal was adjourned on December 17 amid questions raised by the UN’s nuclear watchdog about the disappearance of surveillance camera recordings from an Iranian nuclear complex.
The Biden administration official did not offer an estimate of Iran’s so-called “breakout time” — the amount of time it would take Tehran to develop a nuclear weapon if it renounced all international agreements restricting its nuclear program — but it has previously been estimated at several months. The official said Iran’s breakout time was “unacceptably short.”
U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said in Washington that the United States had conveyed to Iran its “alarm” over the purported progress of Iran’s nuclear program. He added that the Vienna talks are “not going well.”
European Union envoy Enrique Mora, the coordinator of the talks in the Austrian capital, said time to reach an agreement was running out fast.
“We don’t have months, we rather have weeks to have an agreement,” Mora told a news conference at the end of the seventh round of talks.
“There is a sense of urgency that is absolutely important if we want to really have success in these negotiations,” he added.
In 2018, then-President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the deal meant to curb Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief, prompting Tehran to gradually exceed limits imposed under the pact.
Biden, has said he is willing to rejoin the deal if Iran returns to full compliance, but negotiations between Tehran and world powers that started in April in Vienna were put on hold in June after the Islamic republic elected hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as president. They resumed after a five-month hiatus, with the United States participating indirectly. The other participants in the talks are Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia.
Iran has gradually stepped up its conditions to rejoin the pact, demanding the lifting of all U.S. sanctions first.
Adding to the tensions, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi said on December 17 that no understanding had been reached with Iran over the issue of a missing data-storage unit from one of the cameras at the centrifuge-parts-production site in Karaj, west of Tehran.
The IAEA and Iran had reached an agreement the previous day on replacing the cameras after Iran claimed they were damaged in a June attack it blames on Israel.
Asked at a news conference in Vienna whether he thought the data could have been destroyed in the June attack, Grossi replied: “We have doubts about that.”
“This is why we are asking them ‘Where is it?’ I’m hopeful that they are going to come up with an answer because it is very strange that it disappears,” Grossi said.
Participants said they aim to resume the talks in Vienna quickly, though they haven’t yet announced a firm date. Mora said, “I hope it will be during 2021,” while China’s chief negotiator, Wan Qun, said the talks will “resume hopefully before the end of the year.”