Hopes are fading fast of coaxing Tehran back into serious nuclear talks. EU officials failed last week to persuade Iran’s new hardline administration to agree on a date to resume negotiations in Vienna over reviving a 2015 pact President Barack Obama struck with Tehran.
Since the election four months ago of ultra-conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi to the Iranian presidency, Tehran has said it is ready to restart talks soon but has avoided picking an actual date. In the meantime, Western officials are becoming increasingly alarmed about Iran’s nuclear activities.
Security analysts reckon Iran is just a month away from being able to produce a bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium. The clock is ticking, and Israel behind-the-scenes has been urging the Biden administration to formulate a Plan B to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed nation.
Some EU officials remain bewildered by an announcement earlier this week by Iran's foreign ministry spokesperson who said the country's lead nuclear negotiator and deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, would be heading on Thursday to Brussels for substantive nuclear discussions. “I think they are running the clock,” a senior EU diplomat told VOA.
The bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, cautioned Monday that any talks that did take place in Brussels will be preparatory meetings as a prelude to Vienna talks recommencing. Unlike some of his officials, Borrell remains hopeful of progress, though. He told Reuters: “You never know. I am more optimistic today than yesterday. No confirmation yet, but things are getting better, and I hope we will have preparatory meetings in Brussels in the days to come.”
The EU is the official coordinator for the 2015 pact, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA, and has been pushing for nuclear talks to resume.
Negotiations got under way in Vienna in April after President Joe Biden signaled a willingness to revive the pact, which Iran signed with six international powers that saw some Western sanctions on Iran lifted in return for the curtailment of Tehran’s nuclear program.
During the six rounds of talks that took place in the Austrian capital before Raisi’s election, the Iranians refused to meet American officials face-to-face and talked directly only with European, Russian and Chinese negotiators.
President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the international agreement in May 2018 and reinstalled sanctions, saying he wanted an agreement that would place indefinite, as opposed to temporary, curbs on Iran’s nuclear program and halt Iranian development of ballistic missiles. Last year, Tehran announced it would no longer observe any nuclear restrictions after the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top general, in Baghdad in an American drone attack.
EU diplomat Enrique Mora flew to Tehran last week to meet with top Iranian officials for the first time since Raisi’s election. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated he thought Iran was stalling. “We are getting close to a point at which returning to compliance with the JCPOA will not in and of itself recapture the benefits of the JCPOA, and that’s because Iran has been using this time to advance its nuclear program in a variety of ways.”
Speaking after meeting Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in Washington, Blinken warned that the “runway is getting shorter” and cautioned other options might have to be explored. Western officials say Iran has accelerated its nuclear program by enriching uranium to higher levels and close to bomb-grade sufficiency.
In September two security analysts, David Albright and Sarah Burkhard of the Institute for Science and International Security, ISIS, warned “Iran has continued to advance its sensitive nuclear programs.”
They added: “In many ways, Iran’s nuclear capabilities now greatly exceed their status in early 2016, when the JCPOA was implemented. Its breakout time, namely the time needed to produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a single nuclear weapon or explosive device, is on order of one month.”
They said in a paper for ISIS: “Although Iran would need more time to build a nuclear explosive device or even longer to build a deliverable nuclear weapon, it has extensive experience in developing and manufacturing nuclear weapons and is ready to build its first one on short order.”
David Albright is a former United Nations nuclear weapons inspector.
Israeli politicians and security officials fear Iran is purposely delaying resuming serious talks and using the time to continue enriching uranium. In a speech to the UN General Assembly in September Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Iran’s nuclear program had “hit a watershed moment and so has our tolerance.”
He added: “Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning.” The chief of staff of Israel’s defense forces, Aviv Kohavi, said last month Israel had “greatly accelerated” operational preparations for action against Iran’s nuclear program.