'Still optimistic': European, Russian negotiators upbeat at end game Iran talks
While the Biden administration has sought to avoid raising expectations, there are signs that some parties believe they could know as early as next week if deal can be reached or not.
While the Biden administration has seemingly sought to avoid raising expectations, there are signs that some of the parties believe they could know as early as next week whether an understanding on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal can be reached or not.
“By next week, we should know if there will be a deal or not,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group, told me today (Feb. 10). “Either breakdown or breakthrough.”
Some European and Russian negotiators were expressing cautious optimism today, as what has been billed as the final stretch of talks to see if Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) can be restored resumed in Vienna on Tuesday.
“I am still optimistic,” a European negotiator in Vienna told me today.
“Very well,” Russian negotiator Mikhail Ulyanov told me about how it’s going. “My assessment: we can finalize the exercise by the end of February, maybe earlier if nothing unexpected happens.”
“We are reaching the last steps of the negotiation,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said at a panel at the French ambassador residence in Washington on Tuesday (Feb. 8). “I do not know if it is going to be one week, two weeks, three weeks…I hope we are able to reach an agreement in the next weeks.”
There were hints of positivity, even wry levity, from negotiators from the three European parties to the pact, France, Britain and Germany, known as the E3. The British and French negotiators have seemingly newly started tweeting from the talks in a more colorful way, perhaps in an effort to offer Twitter commentary on the negotiations that has been dominated until now by Russia’s Ulyanov, who offers daily photos and wry commentary about the proceedings, recently commenting that the lead US negotiator Rob Malley was wearing a tie that day.
Showing a photo of a “welcome home” greeting from his Vienna hotel, French political director Philippe Errera tweeted Wednesday that it was a sure sign that negotiations had been dragging on for too long.
“Constructive exchange” with Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani, the E3 and EU coordinator Enrique Mora this afternoon, Britain’s lead negotiator and director for Middle East and North African affairs Stephanie Al-Qaq tweeted today, tagging her Iranian counterpart and Mora.
US cautious in its messaging
Some non-proliferation experts on a call with the US negotiating team experts last week came away with a sense they were somewhat pessimistic about prospects for reviving the deal. Supporters of reviving the deal also have been frustrated that the Biden White House apparently prefers to have little attention paid to the issue, rather than try to head off well-organized opposition to it as the prospect of a possible deal revival has come within reach.
“The White House wants this issue to remain on the sidelines, and not be as controversial as in 2015,” a U.S. expert on the Iran nuclear diplomacy, speaking not for attribution, told me. “The problem is, they are starting to lose… ground [to opponents of a deal.] They have to lay the groundwork for whatever happens. They have not.”
“We are not talking now about something happening in a few weeks …and the entire community that is allied with them is unprepared how to frame it,” the expert continued, adding he thinks the administration has “stronger arguments now [in favor of a revived deal], because we have lived through” the disastrous results of Trump quitting the deal in 2018.
With the Biden White House apparently hesitant to ramp up a defense of an agreement it is not sure it will get and on an issue that few Americans are paying attention to, the administration’s strongest defense of any revived agreement to date has arguably come from a Senate ally, Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy.
“Trump’s Iran failures left Biden with no choice but to make a deal,” Murphy headlined a piece in Time today on the issue. Trump “scrapped the deal and reimposed sanctions. Not a single other nation joined him…Within a few years, experts estimated the time it would take Iran to enrich enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon (the “breakout time”) had dropped from a year to two months.”
“I was expressing shock at the ongoing and accumulating cost to global security by President Trump’s decision to ignore his entire national security cabinet and tear up the nuclear deal,” Murphy tweeted today, in response to media coverage of a closed briefing he and fellow members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee received on Iran yesterday (Feb. 9). Briefing at the classified session were US Iran envoy Rob Malley (remote from Vienna), and White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk.
As Murphy’s Time piece indicated, senators at the briefing reportedly said they were told Iran’s “breakout” time—the amount of time it would take to highly enrich enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb--is now estimated to be two months--down from one year when the Iran nuclear deal was in force, until Trump quit it in 2018. [CIA Director Bill Burns, in December, said the agency does not “see any evidence that Iran’s Supreme Leader has made a decision to move to weaponize.”]
“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,” a US official, speaking not for attribution, told me in an interview in December.
Without a deal to restore the limitations in the nuclear pact, “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,” the official continued. “That does not mean they would have a nuclear weapon. External reports suggest that might take a year or two.”
Sources and recent reporting indicate that the U.S. assesses a restored agreement, if one is able to be reached, would push Iran’s breakout time out to six to nine months. That is several months more than currently, but less than the 12 months when the JCPOA was in force from 2016 until Trump quit it in 2018 and imposed maximum pressure on Iran.
‘There is no viable Plan B’
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, says there is no better, viable alternative.
“There is no viable plan B,” Kimball told me.
"The time it may take Iran to amass a significant quantity of fissile material for a nuclear weapon under a restored JCPOA may now be less than it was in January 2016 when the deal was formally implemented, but it would very likely be at least 6 months and maybe closer to 9—which is far more than if an understanding to restore compliance is not achieved,” Kimball said.
“The Iranians since 2019 have been taking steps designed to maximize their leverage for this moment, to protest everything unfortunately the US did after 2018 designed to blow up the goddamn deal,” Kimball continued.
“No, we don’t have viable alternatives,” Kimball said. “And it may not be possible to fix the damage caused by Trump and his minions on the Hill.”
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