US diplomat: 'We will see' if new Iran admin prepared to return to nuclear deal, still US preferred path

Were new Iranian team to believe they "can get more or give less" to return to deal, that is an illusion, US diplomat said.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman attends a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Monday in Tianjin, China. (U.S. Department of State via AP) (State Department/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
  • “We will see whether they are prepared to come back,” senior US diplomat said.

  • “If they think they can get more, or give less to return to a deal…it is illusory,” he said. “They will find that out.”

A senior U.S. diplomat said the United States will wait until after Ebrahim Raisi’s inauguration next week to determine if Iran is prepared to return to full implementation of the 2015 Iran nuclear pact, rather than try to interpret signals coming from Iran during its transition consultations on its intentions.

But if the new Iranian team were to think that it can negotiate additional concessions by building up its nuclear program as leverage, that would be a dangerous illusion, he said.

“The belief that they can get a better deal and build leverage [by expanding their nuclear program] is dangerous,” the senior US diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told me in an interview.

“If they think they can get more, or give less to return to a deal…it is illusory,” he said. “They will find that out.”

If the U.S. determines that Iran is not prepared to return to full implementation, or that Iran’s nuclear program has advanced to the point that the non-proliferation limits in the deal cannot be recaptured, it will explore options, including for tightening enforcement of economic sanctions, but he hopes it does not come to that, he said.

“We will see whether they are prepared to come back,” the senior US diplomat said.

“As we have said, there will come a point where…we will have to move on, and a return to the JCPOA will no longer carry with it the nonproliferation benefits that was part of the bargain,” he said, referring to the acronym for the formal name of the deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“We don’t have a deadline…There will be a time, after which the non-proliferation part of the equation can no longer be recaptured,” he continued, saying U.S. nuclear experts will have to determine when that point would come.

“I hope it does not come to that,” he said.

He declined to get into what options the U.S. would consider taking if it determines the window for a return to the deal will close without an agreement, beyond tightening enforcement of existing extensive US sanctions on Iran. “I am not going to get out ahead,” he said. “Our sanctions are still in force.”

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was expected to discuss the prospect of tightening U.S. sanctions on Chinese entities importing Iranian oil when she met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other officials in Tianjin, China on Monday (July 26), should agreement on a return to the nuclear pact not be able to be reached.

“We have been hoping, we could lift sanctions,” on Iran’s energy and banking sectors, including on Chinese entities purchasing Iranian oil, if the U.S. and Iran could agree on a mutual return to the nuclear deal, the US diplomat said. But “if there is no return to JCPOA…and if we are settling in for a long period of no return to JCPOA,” we will first look at our sanctions enforcement policy, he said.

“It is not our preferred path forward,” he said.

“There’s an easy answer,” he said. “Get back into the deal. We are prepared to lift all the sanctions that are inconsistent with the deal.”

France, too, pressed this week for Iran to quickly return to the negotiating table. A sixth round of international talks on a return to the deal wrapped up in Vienna in mid-June; a seventh round is now not expected to be convened before mid-August.

“It is urgent for Iran to return to the negotiating table,” a spokeswoman for the French foreign ministry said in a briefing on Monday (July 26). “Progress has been made over six negotiating sessions, but through its actions, Iran continues to exacerbate the nuclear situation. If it continues down this path, not only will it delay the moment when an agreement might be reached providing for the lifting of sanctions, but it could compromise the very possibility of concluding the Vienna talks and restoring the JCPoA.”

“We are consulting closely on this situation with our E3 partners and other participants in the JCPoA, including the United States, with the shared goal of resuming negotiations as quickly as possible and reaching an agreement,” the French ministry official continued.

The theory that the parties were going to be able to quickly conclude a deal on a mutual return to the JCPOA after Iran’s presidential elections on June 18 “is clearly proven not to be correct,” said Eric Brewer, a former NSC non-proliferation official, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

After six rounds of talks in Vienna, “the disagreements now are on such a small set of issues, but very important,” Brewer said. But if “the new Iranian government…digs in its heels a little more, it becomes very hard to resolve.”

If the parties can’t reach a deal in the fairly near term, “they are going to reach a point, where a one-year break out becomes unrecoverable, [or] to recover it requires a significant amount of changes to Iran’s nuclear program,…and to convince Iran to do that, is really hard.”

“What concerns me about that time issue, as we get farther and farther into the year, is how far does Iran’s nuclear program advance in irreversible ways, so that it becomes impossible to achieve a one-year breakout,” Henry Rome, an Iran analyst with the Eurasia Group, told me.

“I think at this point, the diplomatic avenue is the most advantageous for the U.S., and there is a huge amount of commitment to trying to exhaust these diplomatic options for sure,” Rome continued. “But I think at the end of the day, the U.S. can’t really want this more than Iran does.”

Iranians “are in a bad mood,” said Vali Nasr, dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, noting recent protests over water shortages in Iran’s Khuzestan province and other signs of sporadic popular unrest in Iran.

“If Raisi comes in…and he wants people to relax,” he could use the economic benefits of a return to the deal, Nasr said.