Policy differences cited in departures from US Iran negotiating team
The departure of two members from the United States Iran nuclear negotiating team resulted from policy differences that had been building for some time, American diplomatic sources said.
Deputy U.S. Iran envoy Richard Nephew stepped down in December, and remains at the State Department. A senior advisor in the State Department arms control bureau, Ariane Tabatabai, also stepped down from the Iran envoy team, and will now continue to work on the rest of her portfolio in the office of the under secretary of state for arms control and international security.
Both Nephew and Tabatabai declined to comment. NBC and the Wall Street Journal previously reported the personnel changes.
American diplomatic sources said that during the fall, Nephew came to believe that instead of a pursuing a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the United States should pivot to pursue negotiating a different agreement.
That was at odds with U.S. policy, led by Special Envoy Rob Malley, which is that it is in the U.S. national interest to try to get a restoration of the JCPOA’s nuclear limits in the near term, if that is possible.
“There was no personal difference,” a senior State Department official, speaking not for attribution, told me about the matter. “If there was any difference, it was with U.S. government policy. So the issue was not what…anyone on the team believes.”
Those differences came to a head shortly after talks on trying to work out a return of the United States and Iran to full implementation of the Iran nuclear deal resumed in Vienna in late November, after a five month hiatus. The resumed talks broke off about a week later, on Dec. 4, with western powers denouncing Iranian overreach in proposals it submitted after delaying a return to talks while expanding its nuclear program.
“Tehran is walking back almost all of the difficult compromises crafted after many months of hard work,” diplomats from the three European parties (E3) to the deal, Britain, France, and Germany, said on Dec. 3.
While the Iranian government said it needed time to resume the talks, it used the time to “accelerate their nuclear program…. stonewall the IAEA,…and to come with proposals that walked back…any of the compromises that Iran had floated during the sixth round of talks, pocket all of the compromises that others… had made, and then ask for more,” a senior State Department official told journalists Dec. 4.
Nephew’s departure was said to come in the aftermath of the parties leaving that seventh round of talks in Vienna, but had been building for some time.
Tabatabai was also said to have stepped down from the delegation over disagreements.
Subsequent efforts spearheaded by the European Union and Russia got the Iranian negotiating team to agree to work off the nuclear commitments text from last June, if their sanctions relief requests were added in brackets to the sanctions text, and talks resumed in Vienna on December 8.
On December 15, Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that they had reached a deal to restore IAEA cameras to the Karaj centrifuge workshop that had been damaged in a suspected sabotage attack in June that Iran attributed to Israel.
The United States had vowed to call an extraordinary IAEA board of governors meeting later that month if IAEA access had not been restored.
Also in December, the head of Iran’s atomic energy organization Mohammad Eslami was cited by Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency on Dec. 25 that Iran would not increase uranium enrichment beyond 60%, in what seemed another possibly Russian-brokered effort to alleviate mounting international anxiety over Iran’s nuclear advances and give time to see if talks on restoring the deal could succeed.
Then-US President Trump quit the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, and imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran. Since 2019, Iran has been progressively exceeding the deal’s nuclear limits to protest the lack of sanctions relief it has been receiving.
The Biden administration has been trying since five weeks after it came into office to work out an understanding with Iran on the US returning to the deal if Iran returns to full implementation. But talks broke off in June before a deal had been reached and shortly after Iranian presidential elections, and did not resume again until late November.
Today (Jan. 26), Russian ambassador to the IAEA Mikhail Ulyanov said that if talks continue at the current pace, it is realistic they could reach agreement by the end of February. He also tweeted a photo of the representatives of the Iran, EU, UK, France, Germany, China and himself sitting around a small table drafting the document on restoring the JCPOA, and said the US was participating remotely.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss warned this week, however, that the current negotiations are not progressing rapidly enough.
“This negotiation is urgent and progress has not been fast enough,” Truss told British parliament Tuesday (Jan. 25). “We continue to work in close partnership with our allies but the negotiations are reaching a dangerous impasse.”
“Iran must now choose whether it wants to conclude a deal or be responsible for the collapse of the JCPOA,” Truss continued. “And if the JCPOA collapses, all options are on the table.”
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman responded crediting Iran’s conduct with having kept the deal alive so far.
“Rather than resorting to hollow threats, the UK must… act responsibly in the delicate process of salvaging the JCPOA,” Iran foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh wrote on Twitter. “The deal still has a chance of survival, thanks to Iran’s responsible conduct. UK should follow suit.”
“So far ok,” a European diplomat said of how the talks were going in Vienna Tuesday, noting the parties were drafting on the screen in the room.
Meantime, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, in a virtual meeting with his Israeli counterpart Dr. Eyal Huluta today, “emphasized that while the US is committed to diplomacy, it is preparing other options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons should negotiations fail,” the White House said in a joint statement.
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