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Iran 'continues to refuse' direct talks, US official says, amid 'frankly confusing' mixed messages
US still open to diplomacy, but “the bottom line is that after so many instances when we were close to a deal, only to see Iran reject them, skepticism is very hard to overcome," US official said.
For months, American officials have said that they are not focused on reviving the Iran nuclear deal. Rather, they were consumed in speaking out against the brutal Iranian crackdown on protests sparked by the death of 22 year old Mahsa Amini following her arrest by Iran’s so-called morality police; condemning Iran’s transfer of drones to Russia being used to kill Ukrainians, and working to free three Iranian Americans held hostage by Iran.
But the American officials’ statements have not closed the door on resuming Iran nuclear diplomacy at some point, even as they have sidestepped questions about if the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is dead. They have said that the Biden administration is resolved to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and they think diplomacy is the better way to achieve that.
Biden “never said diplomacy was dead,” US Iran envoy Rob Malley told the BBC’s Hard Talk in an interview aired Jan. 30. “He never said that the possibility of an understanding with Iran was dead. In fact, we have said the exact opposite time and time again.”
“We could play with words about what exactly is dead or not,” Malley continued. “I've been charged by the President to seek a diplomatic outcome. That's still what I'm doing even as we take other steps…I don't think anyone can doubt the military capacity of the United States…It's not our first option…It's a very dangerous option. It's not one that… President Biden would engage in cavalierly. He would do it if necessary.”
So does that mean the U.S. administration is exploring a non-JCPOA diplomatic arrangement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon? And in the meantime, it will pursue a version of maximum pressure 2.0?
A senior American administration official said they still seek a diplomatic resolution to address grave concerns about Iran’s growing nuclear program, but Iran to date has rejected direct talks.
US ‘open to diplomacy’ but Iran ‘continues to refuse’ direct talks
“We have always said we were open to diplomacy to see if we could address their nuclear program, which remains an issue of grave concern,” the US official, speaking not for attribution in an interview with me Wednesday, said. “Of course, as we also have repeatedly said, we think the far better way to do that would be through direct talks, which Iran continues to refuse.”
While Iran to date has rejected direct talks, “we have always had ways of passing messages to Iran,” the senior administration U.S. official said. “To make it unmistakable what we mean – in particular with regards to threats to American citizens, release of our unjustly held detainees, and Iranian military support to Russia.”
American officials similarly responded to queries last month, first raised by Iran International, about alleged meetings between US Iran envoy Rob Malley and Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations Saeid Iravani, not denying or confirming whether such meetings had occurred, but by saying the US has the means to send firm messages to Iran. “Even as the JCPOA is not on the agenda, we have made clear that we have the means to deliver specific and firm messages to Iran when it is in America’s interest to do so,” a State Department spokesman said Jan. 18.
A spokesman for the Iranian mission to the UN in New York, for its part, said the Iranian mission had not engaged in any “negotiations” with American officials. But the Iranian mission statement did not seem to entirely rule out possible contacts or meetings that it would not construe as “negotiations.”
‘We have heard the same words before’
Even before protests erupted in Iran in late September, western officials’ became increasingly convinced that Iran was unwilling or unable to take a deal after it rejected a painstakingly negotiated European Union proposal on reviving the pact on September 1.
“Nothing positive in general, and no movement/no prospect on JCPOA,” a European negotiator said in January about the prospect of revived nuclear diplomacy on Iran. “Everything is bad and sad,” he said this week.
But even as U.S. and European officials have said they believe the prospect of reviving the JCPOA is remote, Iranian officials in recent months have frequently seemed to be trying to give the impression to a domestic audience that Iran nuclear talks might be revived soon.
Such atmospherics surrounded a trip by Qatar’s foreign minister to Tehran over the weekend. Iranian and other media reported suggestions that the Qatari envoy was conveying messages from the United States related to the nuclear talks.
“Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said on Sunday that his visiting Qatari counterpart Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani carries the message of the Western parties to JCPOA for Tehran,” Iran’s IRNA news agency reported on the Qatari envoy’s visit to Iran Jan. 29. The Iranian foreign minister “said that Tehran welcomes any initiative by Doha to help the negotiations for finding an end to sanctions on Tehran.”
“The Qatari foreign minister said the United States has handed over a series of messages to Qatar to be conveyed to Iran, adding the messages are related to the nuclear agreement but perhaps not directly, the Iranian Students' News Agency reported,” according to China’s Xinua News agency.
Some recent Iranian official public statements suggesting they want to come back to nuclear talks have been “far from clear, and frankly confusing,” the senior US administration official told me Wednesday. “The bottom line is that after so many instances when we were close to a deal, only to see Iran reject them, skepticism is very hard to overcome.”
Since 2021, there have been at least three cycles of negotiations, western negotiators thinking they were on the verge of a deal, then Iran rejecting it, most recently in September.
“We have heard the same words before,” the U.S. official said. “What is different this time? The one difference we see is that the overall situation has only gotten worse. Iran’s own actions have shifted our focus from nuclear talks to their supply of drones to Russia for use in their war against Ukraine, and their brutal crackdown against their own people.”
Not Maximum Pressure 2.0, US official says. Biden administration offering serious diplomacy, US/Europe more united than ever on Iran
With no prospects seen for a deal in the near term, the US, UK and Europe have been announcing coordinated sanctions on Iranian entities on multiple grounds at a rapid pace. So are we headed back to the Biden administration’s version of the Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign?
The US official said there are multiple differences.
“First, the Trump administration walked away from the nuclear deal; we have tried to restore it,” he said.
“Second, the Trump administration came up with a list of requests that essentially amounted to a demand for the regime’s surrender,” he said. By contrast, “we stood behind a set of very realistic requests endorsed by all P5+1 participants related to Iran’s compliance with its nuclear obligations in order for Iran to benefit from sanctions relief. In other words, we believe in diplomacy, the Trump administration did not.”
“And third, the Trump administration acted alone, unilaterally. We are united with allies and partners, more unified with the Europeans perhaps than ever before,” he said. “This is the result of months of patient diplomacy to try to restore ties that the Trump administration damaged.”
That unity means that “when Iran goes to the French, Germans, British, or us, they get a single, unified, powerful answer.”
IAEA ‘concerned’ at undeclared changes to Fordow centrifuge installation
Meantime, the International Atomic Energy Agency on Wednesday expressed concern about undeclared changes to Iran’s configuration of centrifuges enriching to 60% purity found in an unannounced IAEA inspection at Iran’s underground, fortified Fordow enrichment site.
“In his latest report to IAEA Member States about verification and monitoring in Iran, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi on 1 February said the Agency had detected during an unannounced inspection at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) on January 21 that two IR-6 centrifuge cascades – used since late last year to produce UF6 enriched up to 60% U-235 – were interconnected in a way that was substantially different from the mode of operation declared by Iran to the Agency in November last year,” an IAEA spokesman said in an emailed statement.
“Iran subsequently informed the Agency that it had switched to this mode of operation on 16 January, following the Agency’s previous unannounced inspection at FFEP earlier the same day,” the IAEA statement continued.
“The Director General said he is concerned that Iran implemented a substantial change in the design information…without informing the Agency in advance,” the IAEA spokesman continued. “This is inconsistent with Iran’s obligations under its Safeguards Agreement and undermines the Agency’s ability to adjust the safeguards approach for FFEP and implement effective safeguards measures at this facility.”
Iran had previously suggested that a Grossi visit to Iran might be arranged sometime in February. Before the latest IAEA disclosure, a European official previously suggested that such a visit might still occur towards the end of the month.
Iran gravitation towards Moscow
Ali Alfoneh, an Iran analyst with the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said the trajectory of internal Iran power dynamics seems to be pulling Iran further away from the possibility of a nuclear deal, and towards a deepening military alliance with Russia.
“Dependent on IRGC support to secure the regime’s survival, Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Raisi never had a real chance of reaching an agreement with the Biden administration, unless it also included delisting of the IRGC,” Alfoneh said by email today. “In this light, the IRGC’s, and more generally, Iran’s gravitation towards Moscow is hardly surprising, which further complicates reviving the JCPOA.”
“Diplomacy may continue, but I am not expecting any breakthrough,” Alfoneh said.
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