Iran defends itself from charges of overreach as parties return to Vienna (updated)
“We are preparing for a world where, due to Iran’s actions, there is no JCPOA to return to,” US diplomat said.
Talks on trying to revive Iran nuclear deal will resume in Vienna Thursday (Dec. 9). The EU coordinator Enrique Mora described the resumed talks as a continuation of the seventh round held last week.
Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani traveled to Moscow Tuesday (Dec. 7) for consultations.
US President Biden and Russian President Putin had a “good” and “productive” discussion on Iran nuclear issue, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said.
Israeli Mossad chief David Barnea and Defense Minister Benny Gantz in D.C. this week for consultations.
CIA doesn't "see any evidence that Iran's Supreme Leader has made a decision to move to weaponize," CIA chief Bill Burns.
“The concern is that in the first quarter of next year, Iran breakout will start to approach the margin of error,” a senior US official told me.
“We are preparing for a world where, due to Iran’s actions, there is no JCPOA to return to,” US diplomat.
“The claim by some Western parties that Iran has had maximalist demands is unfounded,” Iran FM Amir-Abdollahian said Monday. Iran seeks a comprehensive deal, not an interim deal or other Plan B alternative option at this time, he said.
Iranian officials are defending themselves following harsh American and European criticism that the proposals they presented at talks on trying to revive the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna last week were so overreaching that western negotiators increasingly doubt that Iran intends to return to the deal and are preparing accordingly.
“The claim by some Western parties that Iran has had maximalist demands is unfounded,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told journalists in a briefing with the visiting Syrian Foreign Minister in Tehran Monday (Dec. 6).
“We participated in the talks with seriousness and good will and won't seek Plan B while sitting at the negotiating table,” the Iranian diplomat continued, according to Iranian journalist Sadegh Ghorbani.
While the Biden administration strongly prefers that the U.S. and Iran can still reach an understanding on a mutual return to full compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Trump quit in 2018, “we are preparing for a world where, due to Iran’s actions, there is no JCPOA to return to,” a senior US diplomat told me Monday.
The European Union coordinator Enrique Mora announced talks will resume in Vienna on Thursday, describing them as a continuation of the seventh round held last week.
“The 7th round #JCPOA talks will continue tomorrow Thursday in Vienna after consultations in and among capitals,” Mora said on Twitter Dec. 8. “A Joint Commission and a number of bilateral and multilateral contacts will take place.”
Meantime, lead Iranian nuclear negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani, traveled to Moscow Tuesday for consultations, Iran’s IRNA news agency reported.
US President Joseph Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a “good” and “productive” discussion on the Iran nuclear issue during a two-hour virtual meeting Tuesday, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told journalists at the White House. Russia and the United States worked well together, along with the Europeans and Chinese, to reach the 2015 Iran nuclear pact. This is an issue where Russia and the United States continue to cooperate closely, he said.
The Kremlin after the call also said that on the Iran nuclear issue, Biden’s and Putin’s positions “do not differ very much.”
“Our president stressed the importance and necessity of implementing the initially agreed parameters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear program," Putin foreign policy advisor Yuri Ushakov briefed journalists, according to Tass, adding that Moscow’s and Washington’s positions “do not differ very much.”
The lead Russian negotiator Mikhail Ulyanov, while discouraging heated statements and “hasty conclusions” from all sides, acknowledged that privately Moscow’s messages to Iran may be far franker that some of their nuclear actions are unhelpful and provocative.
Of particular concern to negotiators and the Israelis are that Iran last week, during the first Vienna talks in over five months, began to use advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium to 20% purity at the underground Fordow facility, reducing its current breakout time to about a month.
“Your assessments fully correspond to the Russian position,” Ulyanov, Russia’s ambassador to the IAEA, said on Twitter, responding to this reporter asking if Moscow behind the scenes is telling the Iranians that their recent actions at Fordow are unhelpful and contribute to western negotiators’ skepticism about Iranian intentions. “We can only reiterate that hasty conclusions are untimely and detrimental.”
American officials say that while the new Iranian Ebrahim Raisi administration stalled for over five months to return to talks on reviving the nuclear deal, it was ramping up higher level 20% and 60% enrichment and the use of advanced centrifuges to accumulate leverage to try to extract more concessions in the talks. Then, when they finally came to the table last week, they had revised a draft understanding crafted over six previous rounds of talks last spring to pocket all the tentative western concessions on sanctions removal, ask for more, and walk back almost all the tentative Iranian concessions on rolling back their nuclear program.
“I think, at a minimum, they believe that they could accumulate more enriched uranium at higher levels and use more advanced centrifuges as leverage for a deal that they think they could extract more from us and give less [on] their part,” a senior State Department official told journalists in a background call on the Vienna talks on Saturday (Dec. 4), referring to the Iranians. “And that’s not a negotiating tactic that’s going to work. I’d argue it’s a negotiating tactic that’s going to backfire.”
Iranian breakout time has shrunk from a year under the nuclear deal that it was observing until a year after Trump left the deal in 2018, to about one month currently.
Concern over shrinking Iranian breakout, use of advanced centrifuges
A second senior U.S. official said Iranian nuclear advances made since then US President Trump quit the Iran nuclear deal and imposed harsh sanctions on Iran have brought Iran to the shortest breakout time ever—the amount of time it would take to produce enough highly enriched fissile material for a nuclear weapon. (It would still take another year or two to produce a nuclear weapon, experts say.)
“I think in general the Iranians have made a number of improvements in their nuclear capacity since the U.S. pulled out of the JCPOA, the most meaningful of which is the accumulation of stockpiles of 20% and 60% enriched uranium, and greater expertise on the use of advanced centrifuges,” the second senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told me in an interview.
“The Fordow move combines the accumulation of 20% enriched uranium and the use of advanced IR-6 centrifuges in a facility that is difficult to target,” he said.
“The concern is that in the first quarter of next year, Iran breakout will start to approach the margin of error,” the second senior US official said. “The IAEA only visits in person about once a week. Iran is not good about keeping cameras on. We could get to a period where essentially they get within the margin of error to configure things and rapidly get one bomb’s worth of [highly enriched uranium] HEU. That does not mean they would have a nuclear weapon. External reports suggest that might take a year or two.”
“We have never been this close,” the second US official said, referring to the shortening Iranian breakout time, which the JCPOA extended to one year. “Even before the [interim Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Plan of Action] JPOA was reached in the fall of 2013, [Iran’s breakout was assessed] we were two or three months away.”
“Iran is trying to extend the clock for negotiations by essentially re-litigating everything [former lead Iran nuclear negotiator Abbas] Araghchi had negotiated,” the second US official said, referring to the diplomatic clock and the nuclear clock.
“We certainly have the capability to put more time on the clock though military or other means,” he said. “The threshold point for that is TBD. If there would be credible evidence that they are moving towards producing weapons-grade material – or other weaponization work – [I think there is a] probability [of that].”
Short of credible evidence that Iran is enriching to 90% or conducting weaponization work? “I think if we get into the latter part of the [first quarter], close to the margin of error, we will reach a decision point,” the second US official said. “A decision will be made.”
CIA chief sees no evidence Iran decided to weaponize
CIA Director Bill Burns, speaking at a Wall Street Journal event Monday, said his agency has seen no evidence that the Iranian leadership has made a decision to produce a nuclear weapon.
The CIA doesn't "see any evidence that Iran's Supreme Leader has made a decision to move to weaponize," Burns told the Wall Street Journal CEO Council Dec. 6.
He spoke as Israeli Mossad director David Barnea was reported to be in Washington discussing Israeli intelligence on Iran with US counterparts, to be joined later this week by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
State Department officials said the US preference is for the US and Iran to be able to reach a diplomatic understanding in Vienna on a mutual return to full compliance with the JCPOA. But if Iran is not engaging seriously, talks can coincide with continued, and tightened sanctions and other measures.
“The fact that we’re sitting in Vienna doesn’t mean that we can’t take steps to make clear to Iran that they have a price to pay if it continues to stonewall,” the senior State Department official said.
“It continues to be our hope that the Iranians return to Vienna prepared to discuss these issues in good faith,” a second State Department official said Tuesday. “There was a good amount of progress achieved in rounds one through six…It was our hope that we would find the Iranians returning to Vienna prepared to work on those remaining issues, building on progress that had been made…That is not what we found. It is our hope that Round Eight proceeds differently.”
Former Israeli military intelligence Iran analyst Danny Citrinowicz said that he did not think Iran was seeking to produce a nuclear weapon, but a demonstrated capability to show that it has a threshold ability to do so, as a way to fortify itself and ward off attack.
“I don’t think they want a bomb. …I think what they want is to be as advanced as they can in enrichment, to show 60% enrichment, that they have mastered advanced IR-6, IR-8 centrifuges, to show that they are highly fortified,” Cintrinowicz told me by phone from Israel Sunday. “And very close to being able to acquire the fissile material for a nuclear bomb, even if they don’t have a bomb, they have the capability to do so.”
Regarding Iran’s recent move to use advanced centrifuges to enrich to 20% at Fordow, Citrinowicz said he assessed the Iranian side is trying to show the other parties the cost to them of Iran not being enticed to return back to full implementation of JCPOA.
“In their mind…they are highlighting the price of not being in the JCPOA. [If the JCPOA collapses], ‘We are not obligated to do anything,’” Citrinowicz characterized how he interpreted the Iranian negotiators’ possible mindset.
While Citrinowicz said he does not believe Iran actually wants to cross the threshold to obtain a nuclear weapon, he says in the current situation, there is a huge possibility for miscalculation.
Even if Iran does not pursue weapons-grade enrichment, “they do things that are very uneasy for the international community,” such as 20% and 60% enrichment, and dual use nuclear work, such as the production of uranium metal, for which it has no need.
“If there is not a return to JCPOA, I think we are entering a very, very unstable situation,” he said.
Updated Dec. 8 with EU announcement on date for resumed Vienna talks and Kremlin readout of Putin Biden discussion on Iran issue.