US expresses new doubts on Iran nuclear deal amid warnings of progress in its nuclear program

State Department Spokesperson Ned Price addresses reporters on Feb. 2, 2021. (Photo: Screen grab)
State Department Spokesperson Ned Price addresses reporters on Feb. 2, 2021. (Photo: Screen grab)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – State Department spokesperson Ned Price expressed new doubts on Monday on the possibility of reviving the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Price’s pessimistic assessment followed warnings from the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran’s nuclear program was “galloping ahead,” while former Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, warned earlier on Monday that efforts to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon were on the verge of failure.

Moreover, these developments are occurring at the same time as the war in Ukraine is prompting Iran and Russia to draw closer together, exacerbating the difficulties.

US Doubts on JCPOA Renewal

Asked about the status of the JCPOA negotiations following a phone call on Saturday between French President Emmanuel Macron and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Price responded that the initiative lies basically with Iran.

“It’s difficult for me to say,” Price stated, because “the onus is on Iran to come forward to make clear” that it is “ready to engage constructively” and “put aside extraneous issues” and “talk in good faith about the deal that has been on the table for some time.”

The nuclear talks were held in Vienna, with the European Union (EU) acting as an intermediary between the US and Iran. In March, Tehran introduced a new condition: that the US take the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) off its terrorism list and lift sanctions on it. 

But the Biden administration has declined to do so, and talks have largely been suspended since then. However, there was one abortive session in Qatar, which was arranged last month by the overly-eager EU mediation team.

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

That session ended in failure after only two days, and it has precipitated a series of negative US assessments about prospects for renewing the deal, the most recent of which Price articulated on Monday.

Read More: US: Iran blocking renewal of JCPOA by introducing new demands

“The Iranians certainly haven’t done anything in recent weeks to suggest that they are eager to re-enter the deal,” Price said. “Every day that they drag their feet” or are silent indicates “to us that they are not serious and that they are not ready to re-enter the JCPOA on a mutual basis.”

Price remained unwilling to give a firm deadline, after which the Biden administration would no longer pursue the agreement. However, he did go a bit further in explaining what would cause the US to do so: advances that Iran is making in its nuclear program. 

“We will reach a point where the deal that’s been on the table for several months now will not be in our interest,” Price said. “We’ll reach that point as soon as the advancements that Iran has made and is making overtake the nonproliferation benefits that the JCPOA would convey.”

Warnings from the IAEA and Israel

The head of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, warned in an interview published on Friday in the Spanish newspaper El Pais that Iran’s nuclear program was advancing rapidly.

Last month, Iran began to remove the IAEA’s monitoring equipment installed under the JCPOA. 

“For almost five weeks, I have had very limited visibility with a nuclear program that is galloping ahead,” Grossi said while on a visit to Madrid. “If there is an agreement, it is going to be very difficult for me to reconstruct the puzzle of this whole period of forced blindness.” 

“It is not impossible, but it is going to require a very complex task and perhaps some specific agreements,” he added.

In an article published early on Monday in Time magazine, Ehud Barak was even more pessimistic. 

Barak suggested that the effort to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb was “apparently headed for failure.” He estimated that Iran was less than 20 days away from “‘threshold nuclear’ status”—i.e., “having enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear device and the technology to make it a weapon.”

It would still take some 18 to 24 months for Iranians “to polish their skills treating metal uranium and packing it into a missile warhead,” Barak said. However, that can be done “In a small lab or workshop and cannot be easily followed, never mind stopped.” 

Barak was critical of the original JCPOA, as concluded in 2015 by the Obama administration, but as he also noted, once the US pulled out of the JCPOA (as Israel had urged), the US or Israel needed to prepare a “military ‘plan B,’ a kinetic attack capable of delaying the Iranian program by at least several years.” But that was not done—hence the present difficulties.

Barak is not so much concerned about an imminent Iranian nuclear attack on Israel but the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region: the prospect that Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia “will all feel compelled to go nuclear.”

Iran is Aligned with Russia, as US recognizes

The war in Ukraine is leading to closer ties between Tehran and Moscow, and that, in turn, appears to be increasing Iran’s belligerence. 

Washington has reported—and protested—plans for Iran to sell large numbers of armed drones to Russia for use in Ukraine.

Read More: US reiterates: Iran is selling armed drones to Russia

Last Tuesday, the leaders of Russia, Turkey, and Iran met in a trilateral summit in Tehran. Before the summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who expressed strong support for Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

Read More: Tehran summit: Erdogan reaffirms intent to attack Kurds in Syria; Iran draws closer to Russia

Subsequently, Price told journalists, “It was striking to hear the Supreme Leader” in “no uncertain terms” endorse “Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.”

“It was especially striking,” he continued, “because Iran all this time had attempted to maintain a veil of neutrality,” saying, “essentially that it was opposed to the war.”

“It’s now clear that was entirely hollow,” Price stated. “Iran has now cast its lot with a small number of countries who wore that veil of neutrality only to end up supporting President Putin in his war against Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.”

“Iran’s support for Russia’s invasion is a sign of the increasing cooperation between rogues and revisionist powers who are united by the desire to overturn the US-led order and the military balance in their respective regions,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Kurdistan 24.

Ben Taleblu suggested that in addition to political support, Iran can provide military advice and assistance to Russia because it is accustomed to confronting stronger powers, like the US, from a position of weakness, which is now, in some part, Russia’s situation in Ukraine. 

“Asymmetric warfare is an Iranian strong suit,” Ben Taleblu said, and “the tables have turned” at least in part. 

Whereas Russia long provided military advice and equipment to Iran, now Iran is providing some of that to Russia. Indeed, one element in Tehran’s program of asymmetric warfare is its “cost-effective and lethal drone program,” Ben Taleblu noted. Now that program has, apparently, drawn Moscow’s attention.