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US ‘alarmed’ at Iran’s nuclear progress, deal may become ‘thing of the past’ — envoy

Rob Malley says Tehran has enough uranium to build bomb within weeks if it chooses to, accuses Iranian negotiators of adding irrelevant demands in Qatar talks

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

US special envoy for Iran Robert Malley and United States' top negotiator for Iran nuclear talks, center, speaks at the Doha Forum in Qatar, March 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Lujain Jo)
US special envoy for Iran Robert Malley and United States' top negotiator for Iran nuclear talks, center, speaks at the Doha Forum in Qatar, March 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Lujain Jo)

The United States and other Western powers are “alarmed” at the advancement of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, the Biden administration’s Iran envoy Robert Malley said on Tuesday.

“They’re much closer to having fissile material for a bomb,” Malley warned in an NPR interview.

“To our knowledge, they have not resumed their weaponization program, which is what they would need to develop the bomb. But we are of course alarmed, as are our partners, at the progress they’ve made in the enrichment field.”

He said Iran now has enough uranium to build a bomb within weeks if it so chooses. He added if that was to happen, the US would know and respond forcefully.

Malley described as a “wasted occasion” recent talks in Qatar on reinstating a nuclear deal resembling the 2015 agreement, which aimed to curb Tehran’s nuclear activity in exchange for sanctions relief.

He said Iran “added demands that I think anyone looking at this would [agree] have nothing to do with the nuclear deal, things that they’ve wanted in the past, that clearly [we] and Europeans and others have said, ‘That’s not part of this negotiation.’”

Robert Malley, US Special Envoy for Iran, is shown in Vienna, Austria, June 20, 2021. (Florian Schroetter/AP)

“The discussion that really needs to take place right now is not so much between us and Iran, although we’re prepared to have that. It’s between Iran and itself. They need to come to a conclusion about whether they are now prepared to come back into compliance with the deal,” Malley said.

In this photo released by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Enrique Mora, a leading European Union diplomat, second right, attends a meeting with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani, third left, in Tehran, Iran, March 27, 2022. (Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP)

“They’re going to have to decide sooner or later, because at some point the deal will be a thing of the past.”

Also in Doha for the talks was EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who warned Tuesday that the window for an agreement to bring Iran back into compliance with the nuclear deal along with the US was closing.

“If we want to conclude an agreement, decisions are needed now. This is still possible, but the political space to revive the JCPOA may narrow soon,” he tweeted.

Former US president Donald Trump severely weakened the pact known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action when he pulled the US out of it in 2018, prompting Iran to drop its own compliance.

On Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian insisted that a revived nuclear agreement with major powers remains achievable, even after the unsuccessful round of talks in Doha.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian speaks during a press conference with the EU’s top diplomat, at the foreign ministry headquarters in Iran’s capital Tehran on June 25, 2022. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Amir-Abdollahian said he believed the Doha talks had been “positive” and a deal could still be reached.

“We are determined to continue negotiating until a realistic agreement is reached,” he said after a phone call with his Qatari counterpart Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, who hosted the indirect talks.

“I insist on the fact that we are making serious efforts to reach a good, solid and lasting agreement,” Amir-Abdollahian added. “An accord is achievable if the United States is realistic.”

The two days of talks, in which the EU mediators shuttled between Iranian and US delegations, were intended to reboot wider negotiations between Iran and major powers in Vienna which have been stalled since March.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has “made clear our readiness to quickly conclude and implement a deal on mutual return to full compliance,” a US State Department spokesperson said after the talks wrapped up in Qatar.

“Yet in Doha, as before, Iran raised issues wholly unrelated to the JCPOA and apparently is not ready to make a fundamental decision on whether it wants to revive the deal or bury it.”

The talks in Doha came just two weeks before Biden makes his first visit to the region as president, with trips to Iran’s foes Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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