U.S. officials acknowledged modest progress in the seventh round of nuclear talks with Iran and the world’s major powers. But they warned that time was running out for restoring the nonproliferation benefits of the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). “We’re now at best to where we were last June, and what we’ve done is define the items on the agenda that need to be discussed,” a senior State Department official said on December 17. “So we made some progress, not enough, certainly at a pace that will not be sufficient to get to where we need to go before Iran’s nuclear advances render the JCPOA a corpse that cannot be revived.”
Robert Malley, the lead U.S. negotiator, said that the Iranians “won't get a better deal.” He warned that their strategy of building leverage through nuclear advances could backfire. Nonproliferation experts have estimated that Iran’s breakout time – the time needed produce enough fuel for one nuclear bomb – could be as little as three weeks. Iran’s breakout time is “unacceptably short,” a senior Biden administration official said on December 17.
After a hiatus of five months, the world’s six major powers reconvened in Vienna to negotiate a return to the historic 2015 nuclear deal by both Iran and the United States. The seventh round began on November 29, paused on December 3 for five days, and ended on December 17.
The logistics were unusual because Iran refused to meet directly with the U.S. delegation. Delegations from Iran and the United States worked out of separate hotels and communicated via European envoys who shuttled messages back and forth. The following are excerpted remarks by U.S. officials on the talks.
Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley
In a televised interview on CNN on Dec. 21, 2021: “If you just look at what they’re doing, it seems pretty clear that their plan is to build more leverage by expanding their nuclear program and hoping to use that leverage to get a better deal. It won’t work. I mean, I think we’ve said this very clearly, we’re prepared to go back to the JCPOA, the nuclear deal, as it was negotiated in 2015 and 2016. Neither more nor less. So if they try to build more leverage: Number one, they won’t get a better deal, because what we say we’re prepared to do is what was negotiated five years ago. But secondly, their strategy is going to backfire. Because as they move forward with their nuclear program, we and the Europeans have made clear, we gradually are going to be losing the nonproliferation benefits for which we bargained.”
Senior State Department Official
Special briefing on Dec. 17, 2021: “If I had to summarize the second part of the seventh round that just concluded, I’d say it was better than it might have been, it was worse than it should have been, which leaves us in an uncertain position as to whether we can get to where we need to go in the short time that we have left to get there. So I’ll come back to that in a second.
“I first want to just state a reminder again that every day that goes by is just further proof and demonstration of how self-defeating the decision to withdraw from the JCPOA was. It’s left an Iranian nuclear program that’s unconstrained, it’s left us with less visibility and monitoring of their program, and that’s why the first objective of the Biden administration on this file is to see whether we can get back to mutual – a mutual return to full JCPOA compliance. And, as President Biden has said, the United States – he is committed to returning the U.S. to compliance and to remain in compliance so long as Iran does the same. That said, President Biden’s core commitment is that Iran will never possess a nuclear weapon, and he’s – he will do what’s necessary to achieve that goal.
“Now, back to the – sort of the conclusion of the seventh round. As I said, it was better than it might have been because there was some modest progress. First, thanks to the efforts of the director general of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, and with help of others, including Russia, an agreement was reached that will allow for the IAEA to reinstall the cameras at Karaj. That’s an important step, it’s a welcome step, but it’s not a step that we should exaggerate, because this is – will now be the third time that Iran agreed – agreed to this agreement with the director general. And we came close this time to calling, as we said we would, for an extraordinary meeting of the Board of Governors if Iran had not agreed to these terms. And if Iran fails to follow up this time, again, I think it will be inevitable that this issue’s going to come to the Board of Governors.
“Second element of modest progress is the fact that thanks to the diplomacy of the European Union in particular, we now have a common understanding of what the text will be that will serve as the basis for negotiations on nuclear issues. That’s, again, a welcome step, but I’d also caution that we should curb our enthusiasm because we’re now at best to where we were last June, and what we’ve done is define the items on the agenda that need to be discussed. They have not been discussed, let alone resolved in this round, and therefore what we have an agenda of issues to be examined, not a set of solutions to be accepted. And so given how much work still needs to be done, given that we still have not achieved that level of clarity on the other issues – sanctions lifting or the sequence of the steps that – the nuclear steps and the sanctions lifting steps that would need to take place – there still is a lot of work to do.
“And, of course, all of this takes place under a circumstance where time is running out because of the pace of Iran’s nuclear program. And as the Secretary has said so many times, we cannot accept a situation where Iran drags its feet at the negotiating table and accelerates its pace with its nuclear program. So we made some progress, not enough, certainly at a pace that will not be sufficient to get to where we need to go before Iran’s nuclear advances render the JCPOA a corpse that cannot be revived.
“It made it a little bit – all the more surprising that Iran chose to conclude the talks today. We and I think our partners were ready – and the other members of the P5+1 – were ready to continue to do the work that’s necessary to advance. The Iranian delegation has its reasons, I’m sure, for wanting to go back. The point is we hope they return and soon, and that when they return, they return with an even greater sense – a greater sense of urgency – a sense of urgency, I should say, so that we can move quickly to try to see whether we can resolve the issues that remain before a mutual return to compliance.
“So again, I’d say regardless of whatever progress was made, the pace at which we are moving is not – won’t suffice to save the JCPOA (inaudible) there’s going to have to be an acceleration. Iran is going to have to come back with a clear set of issues that it prioritizes and realistic positions on how to resolve them.
“If that’s done, as we’ve said and I think I – we’ve said it in the last call we had, they will find on the part of the United States a party that is prepared to negotiate seriously, constructively, and creatively to resolve the issues that we need to resolve in order to achieve a mutual return to compliance. And if Iran chooses to stay on its current course, as I said, of accelerating nuclear development and dragging its feet at the diplomatic table, then that will be deeply regrettable I think for everyone. And the main story that will emerge at that point is that Iran’s engagement with the world will be defined by a non-proliferation crisis and by the threat to international peace and security that Iran’s nuclear program would represent. We hope we don’t come to that. We’re still absolutely prepared to avoid that outcome. We are prepared to come back at any time to negotiate a fair return to full mutual compliance. But the choice really is in Iran’s hands whether it chooses to accelerate its program or to show self-restraint, on whether it chooses to negotiate seriously and realistically or chooses a different course.”
Senior Biden Administration Official
Press call on Dec. 17, 2021: “First of all, we believed that getting out of the JCPOA without any plan for what comes next led to exactly what I think would have been predicted: a rapidly escalating Iranian nuclear program; Iranian regional behavior that is even more aggressive than it was before, particularly in 2019, with a direct state-on-state attack between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and with no discernible U.S. response.
“So, we wanted to rebuild the united diplomatic front, particularly with the P5+1 negotiating partners. And that took some effort, because to do that, we also had to demonstrate that we were prepared to return to compliance with our side of the deal.
“And over the spring and summer, we did that. And we had about six rounds of talks in Vienna. And I think the Iranians, particularly now, are the isolated party. It’s pretty clear that in return for its nuclear compliance with the JCPOA, we are prepared to return to compliance with our side. But the Iranians, to date, have not agreed to take the steps that it would need to take on the nuclear side, which is why we’ve been stuck.
“The last two rounds with the new Iranian government — I think the Iranians were surprised, two weeks ago, when they met what really was the united diplomatic front, not just the E3 and the United States, but also Russia and China. They went back to Tehran. We’re in the middle of another round now in Vienna, which is probably going to take a pause after today. And I’ll be getting a report from our Vienna team shortly.
“But the bottom line is: Iran’s nuclear program is rapidly accelerating. And I’m repeating myself here, but this should not have been a surprise to anybody that knows Iranian behavior and would have predicted exactly what would have happened if the United States just unilaterally left the deal without any plan or conception of what would come next.
“So, we’ve been working diplomatically to get this problem back in a box, to return Iran to nuclear compliance with the deal. And we think we have very strong support in that regard, not just from the three, but also from Russia, in particular, and even China. So, we have a united front in Vienna, for the most part. And our partners around the world are also making clear to the Iranians that the only way for Iran to get out of the economic straightjacket that it’s in is through a return to commitments of the nuclear deal.
“So this is obviously a story that will play out over the first quarter of 2022 and perhaps beyond. And it is, I think, a central focus of ours, as we focus on this region.”
“I don’t want to get into precise calculations of breakout time. This is — there’s kind of a science to this, and I’m not — I’m not the expert, and I defer to our proliferation experts.
“But it is — it’s really short; I’d just put it that way… it’s unacceptably short.
“And, you know, the Iranians made the decision when the U.S. got out of the nuclear deal — they held back for a little while, but then starting in 2019, they just unleashed their nuclear program. And that has just continued apace. And for every day they spin centrifuges and for every day they stockpile uranium, the breakout time continues to shrink.
“So, that’s the whole reason we did a nuclear deal back in 2015, 2016. It is a very, very serious problem, and it’s an international problem. And we have sought to keep that focus.
“This is an international problem. It’s not just a problem for the United States of America. It’s not just a problem for Israel. This is an international problem.
“It was a topic of the conversation between President Putin and President Biden just two weeks ago. Of course, Ukraine was a central topic, but Iran and the talks in Vienna was very much on the agenda.
“So, I can’t give you a precise timeframe on breakout, but it is — it is alarming.”
State Department Spokesperson Ned Price
Press briefing on Dec. 20, 2021: “As my colleague said, at the time there was some modest progress. I believe the way he put it was that it was better than it might have been, but it was worse than it should have been. And so that leaves us in a fairly uncertain posture when it – fairly uncertain position as to whether we can achieve what we have sincerely and steadfastly sought to do for a number of months now, and that is to test whether we can achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.
“As you heard, though, there has been – there was some progress in the most recent element of the second round. We, of course, noted the announcement between Iran and the IAEA of the arrangement to restore elements of transparency to the IAEA monitoring program on the ground in Iran, to reinstall the cameras at Karaj. That’s an important step. It’s a welcome step. But again, we are clear-eyed about this, because this was a step that never should have been necessary in the first place.
“The second element of modest progress that you heard about from my colleague is that we now have a common understanding of what the text will be that will serve as the basis for negotiations on nuclear issues. And he went on to make the point that we don’t yet have the text, but we have an outline or we have an agenda for discussions of that text when they resume.
“So that’s all positive. That’s all good and well. But in many ways, that really only takes us to where we were as of June, and so we’re, as he put it, I believe, curbing our enthusiasm for where we are and where we might go. There’s still a lot of work to do.
At the same time, and this was the point of your question, all of this is still taking place in an atmosphere of provocation, what we have seen from the Iranians, and an atmosphere in which time is running out because of – owing in part to these provocations and advancements in Iran’s nuclear program. It’s the accelerating pace of that program. We have said this on many times. We – and you repeated it in your question, we can’t accept a situation in which Iran is dragging its feet at the negotiating table but accelerating the pace of its nuclear program back home.
“What we experienced, what the team experienced on the ground in Vienna until the talks adjourned late last week, it was progress, but it wasn’t at a pace that was sufficient to get us to where we need if we are to render the JCPOA as a viable vehicle going forward. If the pace of diplomacy on the one hand continues to lag far behind or continues to lag at all behind the pace of diplomacy on the other, the JCPOA, as you heard from the E3, will be an empty shell. As you heard from my colleague, it will be a corpse that cannot be revived.
“Obviously, we don’t want to see either of those happen. We still continue to believe we still have a window of opportunity in which a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA would be the best option for us, it would be the best option for the other members of the P5+1, it would be the best option for the international community because it would still accomplish what we need it to do in terms of verifiably preventing Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon.
“But we’ve talked about this clock. We’ve talked about the calendar. We’ve made the point consistently that it’s not chronological so much as it is technological and technical. And so, we’re taking a very close look at the pace of Iran’s nuclear program, we’re taking a close look at look at the pace of Iran’s nuclear program, we’re taking a close look at what a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA would mean in terms of the protections and guarantees.
“And so, as we continue to watch what Iran does and what Iran says publicly, privately in the context of these indirect negotiations in Vienna, we’ll make a judgment based on that as to whether the JCPOA remains in our interest. And all along, we are not wasting any time in thinking about those alternatives, and we’re doing more than thinking about alternatives. We’re actively discussing those alternatives to this variety of diplomacy. That is to say, this diplomacy focused on a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. We’re discussing alternatives to that with other members of the P5+1, with other partners in the region and beyond.”
“We are prepared, as we have said, to lift sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA. The Iranians know that. It is something that the P5+1 knows. It’s something that we have been quite clear about. It is essentially the formula that was deemed appropriate in 2015, when the deal was consummated, in 2016 when it was implemented by the P5+1 and Iran. It essentially says we’re prepared to lift sanctions inconsistent with the JCPOA, as long as Iran places itself back within the strict confines, the strict nuclear confines of the JCPOA in terms of the stringent verification and monitoring, in terms of the other restrictions that the JCPOA places on Iran’s nuclear program.”
“The undeniable fact is that in 2018, the – we were promised by the previous administration a decision to walk away from the JCPOA that would result in a so-called better deal, that would cow Iran and its proxies, that would leave the United States in a stronger position and so much more. And across every one of those promises, we’ve actually seen the opposite take place.
“Of course, there was no better deal to be had, during the last administration. We’re still trying to determine if we can achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, if we can get Iran back into the JCPOA and the restrictions that it places on Iran’s nuclear program. We have seen the attacks by proxies in the region not decrease, but in fact, increase. And we have seen these groups become unfortunately emboldened with consequences that have been deadly for our partners in the region and attacks that have implicated our interests as well.
“And so, across all of our concerns with Iran whether it’s its nuclear program, whether it’s support for terrorism, whether it’s support for proxies, whether it is destabilizing influence in the region, I think it is fair to say that every single one of our concerns has become more pronounced since 2018. And so, as our first priority, we are still seeking to determine whether the JCPOA is a viable vehicle for achieving that top priority: putting Iran’s nuclear program back in a box. And it’s our top priority because a nuclear-armed Iran, of course, is unacceptable. It is something that President Biden has committed he will never allow to happen.
“But we also know that Iran with a nuclear weapon would be an Iran that would act with even more impunity across all of these categories. So right now, that is why we are urgently seeing – seeking to see whether we can achieve that mutual return to compliance, just as we are working with allies, working with partners, to take on the broader array of Iran’s destabilizing activities throughout the region.”
“We know that Iran with a nuclear weapon or closer to a nuclear weapon would be an Iran that would act with even more impunity, an Iran that would be even more emboldened. We have seen Iran emboldened since 2018. We’ve seen its proxies emboldened since 2018. We’ve seen the tragic and deadly consequences of that. And so conversely, an Iran that is – whose nuclear program is once again back in a box, we think that would redound positively on the broader set of challenges that we face with Iran.
“But secondly, we are not sitting on our hands when it comes to the broader activities, malign activities that Iran is undertaking. We are working in various ways, some of them public, with allies and partners around the world, including those in the region, to counter these. But we’ve also made the point that even as we’re focused in Vienna on the nuclear program we want to address, see if we can address diplomatically with Iran and our allies and partners to build on the JCPOA, to see if we can talk about something that addresses those broader set of concerns. That’s still something we seek to do, even as we are very much in the midst of seeing if we can achieve that mutual return to compliance when it comes to the nuclear program.”