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'It's hard to find an innocent explanation for the delay'

Iran’s excuses to avoid nuclear talks are ‘wearing thin’ – US official

Robert Malley, special envoy for Tehran, says world is impatient with delays, alarmed over nuclear violations

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Robert Malley, US special envoy for Iran (R) and Stephan Klement, EU ambassador and European external action service special advisor on Iran, talk in front of the Hotel Imperial near the Grand Hotel Vienna where closed-door nuclear talks took place in Vienna, Austria, June 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Florian Schroetter)
Robert Malley, US special envoy for Iran (R) and Stephan Klement, EU ambassador and European external action service special advisor on Iran, talk in front of the Hotel Imperial near the Grand Hotel Vienna where closed-door nuclear talks took place in Vienna, Austria, June 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Florian Schroetter)

US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley on Monday said Iran’s explanations for for staying away from nuclear talks in Vienna are “wearing thin,” days after meeting with Middle East allies concerned by the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

Speaking to Middle Eastern journalists during a phone briefing, Malley said that “at the same time that they are not coming to the table and they are not prepared to discuss how we can resume mutual compliance with the JCPOA, they are taking steps to expand their nuclear program, and they are putting additional obstacles on the work of the IAEA.”

Malley called Iran’s actions “in contradiction or inconsistent with what they claim to be their desire to come back to the JCPOA,” while saying the US was ready to adapt to a reality in which Iran does not return to the nuclear deal.

Malley said Washington is increasingly concerned Iran will choose to continue to delay the resumption of nuclear talks or come back to the negotiations with unrealistic demands. The US is intensifying “in the coming days and weeks” its diplomacy and consulting with allies on steps should Iran choose that path, according to Malley.

Malley and his team traveled to Moscow and Paris in September, and were in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and France last week to discuss a mutual US and Iranian return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“All of our interlocutors – whether they’re in the region or in Europe — shared deep and growing concern over pace and direction of Iran’s nuclear progress,” he said.

Mohammad Eslami, new head of Iran’s nuclear agency (AEOI) talks on stage at the International Atomic Energy’s (IAEA) General Conference in Vienna, Austria, September 20, 2021. (Lisa Leutner/AP)

He also indicated a “shared impatience” over Iran’s delay in returning to nuclear talks.

“At this point, it’s hard to find an innocent explanation for why they’re taking so long,” Malley said.

The US, China, Russia, Germany, France and Britain struck the JCPOA accord in Vienna with Iran on its nuclear program in 2015.

The nuclear deal began to fall apart in 2018 when former US president Donald Trump’s administration withdrew from it and reinstated sanctions. Iran in turn again started to ramp up its nuclear activities.

Talks began in April in Vienna between Tehran and the remaining five parties to the 2015 deal, aimed at bringing Washington back into the agreement. But that dialogue has been stalled since the sixth round of talks in June, when ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi won Iran’s presidential election.

Though the preference is to find a diplomatic solution, Malley reiterated that the US will use “other tools” to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons if the Vienna talks fail.

In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Ebrahim Raisi attends a live televised interview with state-run TV, at the presidency office in Tehran, Iran, September 4, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

“We are in a critical phase of the efforts to see whether we can revive the JCPOA,” he emphasized, warning that “the JCPOA cannot survive forever.”

Even if there is not a return to the JCPOA, said Malley, the door to diplomacy will still be open: “Our goal will still be to solve this issue diplomatically.”

There have been mixed signals around the likelihood of a return to talks.

Last week, the European Union’s top diplomat said Monday he is optimistic that negotiations to save the nuclear deal with Iran will restart. His remarks came after an Iranian lawmaker said that his country will meet with European representatives in Brussels to discuss restarting the Vienna negotiations.

Meanwhile, UN nuclear watchdog chief Rafael Grossi expressed concern last week that he was still waiting for a “high level” discussion with Iranian officials in Tehran, after negotiating last month a new compromise on monitoring Iran’s nuclear program to help restart the talks in Vienna.

Earlier in October,  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “every” option was on the table if Iran did not engage in a good faith effort to negotiate the US reentry into the nuclear deal.

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