US: Iran blocking renewal of JCPOA by introducing new demands

Both officials—US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley and State Department Spokesperson Ned Price—blamed Iran for the failure to reach an agreement.
Robert Malley, US Special Envoy for Iran, is shown in Vienna, Austria, June 20, 2021 (Photo: AP/File photo)
Robert Malley, US Special Envoy for Iran, is shown in Vienna, Austria, June 20, 2021 (Photo: AP/File photo)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Two senior US officials expressed skepticism on Tuesday about prospects for a renewal of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which former president Donald Trump left in 2018.

Their statements marked the strongest expression of doubt by Biden administration officials about a return to the agreement since the talks began in April 2021, early in the Biden presidency.

Both officials—US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley and State Department Spokesperson Ned Price—blamed Iran for the failure to reach an agreement. As they explained, Tehran keeps introducing new demands unrelated to the accord.

They also made clear that the last round of talks, held last week in Qatar, was convened at the initiative of the European Union. 

That was an extraordinary episode in which the EU's Foreign Policy Chief, Josep Borrell, and his Chief of Staff, fellow Spaniard Enrique Mora, left themselves open to the charge that their fixation on renewing the JCPOA had left them open to being manipulated by Russia and Iran—subsequent to which the EU diplomats dragged the US into their dubious diplomacy.

Read More: Iran nuclear talks end after just two days, as doubts grow about effort

US President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit the Middle East next week. His trip will include stops in Israel and Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) + 3—Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq.

Read More: Biden to meet Iraqi leadership on Middle East trip

All those countries, with the qualified exception of Iraq and Qatar, oppose Iranian expansion in the region. Israel and Saudi Arabia have explicitly expressed their opposition to a return to the JCPOA, which they do not believe will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Almost certainly, the White House wanted to make its stance clear on the status of the JCPOA negotiations before Biden's trip to the Middle East and clarify the muddle created by the EU.

That may, at least in part, explain the strong statements that Malley and Price made on Tuesday.

Malley "Unclear why [Iranians] were prepared to go to Doha"—"Wasted Occasion" 

Malley was the lead negotiator on the JCPOA during the Obama administration and has resumed that role in the Biden administration. As such, he has tended to be more optimistic than others about prospects for renewing the accord.

But early on Tuesday morning, following the long July 4 holiday weekend, the highly regarded National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast an interview with Malley about the JCPOA talks, in which Malley expressed an unprecedented public skepticism.

Malley explained the failed negotiations in Qatar. "The European Union, in its role as coordinator" of the talks, "wanted to try one more effort, at least one more effort," he said. They hoped "the Iranians would show something, some willingness to get to yes."

Why? The EU's diplomatic initiative emerged after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Tehran. In a joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, both foreign ministers joined in a surprise announcement that they favored the resumption of JCPOA negotiations. Within 48 hours, Borrell was in Tehran, where he announced that the talks would resume without having verified much of anything.

But futile diplomacy is not cost-free. As the Israeli foreign minister warned Borrell, even before the last round of talks began, "This is a strategic mistake that sends the wrong message to Iran."

Indeed, during the talks, the Iranians "added demands" that had "nothing to do with the nuclear deal," Malley explained, "things that they've wanted in the past" that "us and the Europeans and others" have said are "not part of the negotiations."

Thus, the two days of talks in Doha were "more than a little bit of a wasted occasion," Malley said, and "it's unclear why [the Iranians] were [even] prepared to go to Doha."

Draft Agreement already Exists; Is Iran Playing for Time to Build Bomb?

The EU has "put on the table very detailed outlines of what they think a fair outcome would be, and we've said we're prepared to take that deal," Malley said. The problem is Iran, which has not done so.

US officials, including Malley, formulate that as Iranian indecision: Tehran has not "made that fundamental decision" to agree to a renewal of the JCPOA on reasonable terms.

"The discussion that really needs to take place right now is not so much between us and Iran," but "between Iran and itself," Malley stated. "They need to come to a conclusion about whether they are now prepared to come back into compliance with the deal."

However, it's equally plausible, if not more so, that Tehran is playing for time, using the extended stalemate to advance its nuclear program. 

Asked about Iran's progress, Malley replied, "They're much closer to having enough fissile material for a bomb."

But "to our knowledge, they have not resumed their weaponization program," he continued, even as he acknowledged they could make a bomb in "a matter of weeks."

"It would be something that we would know, we would see," Malley affirmed, and "to which we would react quite forcefully."

That may not be so easy, however. Last month, The New York Times reported that US and Israeli intelligence were watching with concern "as Iran digs a vast tunnel network just south" of its Natanz nuclear site. They suspect that it is "Tehran's biggest effort yet to construct new nuclear facilities so deep in the mountains that they can withstand bunker-busting bombs and cyberattacks."

State Dept Spokesperson Backs Malley

Later in the day, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price was asked about Malley's remarks. As one would expect, Price said much the same. 

He supported Malley's assessment that Iran has yet to decide to return to compliance with the JCPOA.

"There has been a deal on the table that has been more or less finalized for several months now," Price stated, but in recent weeks and months, rather than make the "political commitment to return to compliance with the JCPOA, Iran has consistently introduced extraneous demands"—and did so at the last round of talks in Qatar. 

Nonetheless, even when pressed, Price would not set a deadline, a time after which the US would not be willing to negotiate with Iran over renewing the JCPOA. 

While Price stated, "There is not another round of talks currently on the books," rebutting some media accounts, he also affirmed, "We remain committed to exploring a mutual return to the JCPOA."

Possibly, however, that will change after Biden's trip to the Middle East next week.