The United States is prepared to “do everything that it can to make sure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon” if indirect talks in Vienna on a return to the nuclear deal fail to bear fruit, a senior State Department official said Thursday.
“We’re prepared for that scenario as well, but the scenario that we prefer, that’s in our interest and that is in Iran’s interest is to come back into mutual compliance and that’s what we’re… in Vienna to try and achieve,” the official said.
The official spoke to reporters in a State Department-organized conference call on the eve of the negotiations’ resumption in Vienna. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the US position going into the fourth round of closed-door talks at which the remaining participants in the nuclear deal are passing messages between the American and Iranian delegations.
The official said the US has laid out the concessions it’s prepared to make in order to rejoin the landmark 2015 nuclear deal that former president Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. The official said success or failure now depends on Iran making the political decision to accept those concessions and to return to compliance with the accord.
The official said that the US will only ease Trump-era sanctions against Iran that it believes are in violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA,) as the deal is officially known, while suggesting that additional sanctions that aren’t in violation of the agreement could remain in place and be used as leverage for subsequent negotiations to reach a “longer and stronger deal” that addresses Tehran’s ballistic missiles program and its “aggressive” activity in the region.
The official said US President Joe Biden views a return to the JCPOA as “just a first step” that will hopefully be used as a platform for a broader deal that would be negotiated immediately after the sides return to compliance with the JCPOA.
However, the official clarified that the US is “not waiting for a return to the JCPOA to try and help out our allies and partners in the region,” referring to the concerns of Iran’s neighbors regarding its efforts at regional hegemony.
Asked if a deal to return to the JCPOA could be reached before Iran’s parliamentary elections in June, the official was non-committal. “Is it possible that we’ll see a mutual return to compliance in the next few weeks, or an understanding of mutual compliance? It’s possible yes. Is it likely? Only time will tell because as I said, this is ultimately a matter of a political decision that needs to be made in Iran.”
The comments came after Secretary of State Antony Blinken complained of Iranian intransigence in the talks during a visit to Ukraine.
“What we don’t know is whether Iran is actually prepared to make the decisions necessary to return to full compliance with the nuclear agreement,” Blinken said in an interview with NBC News in Kyiv. “They unfortunately have been continuing to take steps that are restarting dangerous parts of their program that the nuclear agreement stopped. And the jury is out on whether they’re prepared to do what’s necessary.”
Iran has thus far given no indication it will settle for anything less than a full lifting of all the Trump sanctions and has balked at suggestions it would have to reverse all of the steps it has taken that violate the deal. Iranian officials have in recent weeks said the US has offered significant, but not sufficient sanctions relief, but they have not outlined exactly what they would do in return.
The administration official said the United States is ready to return to the explicit terms of the nuclear deal as they were negotiated by the Obama administration, but only if Iran will do the same. The official said the United States will not accept doing more than required by the JCPOA to bring Iran back into compliance.
The deal gave Iran billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for limits on its nuclear program. Much of that relief evaporated after Trump pulled out and reimposed and expanded US sanctions.
Iran responded by breaking through the deal’s limits on uranium enrichment, the use of advanced centrifuges and other activities such as heavy water production. Last month, Iran said it began enriching a small amount of uranium to 60 percent purity at the Natanz site — its highest level ever, and a short step from weapons-grade nuclear material.
After previous rounds of talks in Vienna, the administration had said there was flexibility in what it might offer to Iran, including going beyond the letter of the deal to ease non-nuclear sanctions from the Trump era that nonetheless affected the relief the Iranians were entitled to for agreeing to the accord.
That is still the case, although the official’s comments on Thursday suggested that the limits of that flexibility had been reached. The official would not describe the concessions the US is prepared to make but said any that it finds to be “inconsistent” with the nuclear deal would be stricken.
The Biden administration has been coy about what specific sanctions it is willing to lift, although officials have acknowledged that some non-nuclear sanctions, such as those Trump imposed for terrorism, ballistic missile activity and human rights abuses, may have to be eased for Iran to get the relief it is entitled to. That’s because some entities that were removed from sanctions under the nuclear deal are now penalized under other authorities.
The official did say that the administration no longer believed that the Trump administration had improperly or illegitimately imposed some of those non-nuclear sanctions with the sole purpose of trying to frustrate a potential return to the deal.
The official said the administration does not question the “evidentiary basis” of those sanctions. However, the official said the administration is looking to see if they are “consistent with a return” to the deal, which it has already determined to be in the US national security interest if Iran comes back into compliance.
“If we think it is inconsistent with a return to the JCPOA to maintain a particular designation, then we are prepared to lift it,” the official said.