President Joe Biden’s special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, said on Monday that the window for negotiations to revive the nuclear deal continues to narrow but also suggested that the US would continue diplomacy to reach a new accord should Tehran's advances render the original agreement obsolete.
“The window for negotiations to return to the [nuclear deal] will not be open forever,” Mr Malley told reporters following a visit to discuss the US Iran strategy with officials in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and France.
“This is not a chronological clock; it’s a technological clock,” said Mr Malley.
“At some point, the [nuclear deal] will have been so eroded because Iran would have made advances that cannot be reversed.
“In which case, you can’t revive a dead corpse.”
However, he also said that the Biden administration would remain committed to diplomacy even if Iran makes advances that kill the original deal. Still, that would greatly complicate matters by necessitating the creation of a new deal.
“Even if we can’t arrive at the [nuclear deal] — and we hope to get to that point — it will be a different kind of diplomacy,” he said.
“There will have to be different steps, and of course the whole conference would be different at that point.
“But our goal would still be to resolve the issue diplomatically because that’s the best way to find a solution.”
Mr Malley stressed that the Biden administration still prefers a diplomatic solution to restore the nuclear deal but spent a substantial portion of his time in the Gulf discussing contingency plans should the clock run out on the stalled nuclear talks in Vienna.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other US officials have repeatedly said that Washington will turn to “other options” if Iran continues to scale up its nuclear activities in breach of the deal.
Mr Malley said that there would be “more intensive diplomacy” in “the coming days and weeks” focused on Iran’s refusal to resume negotiations, its gradual expansion of its nuclear programme and scaled-back access for inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Mr Blinken hosted IAEA chief Rafael Grossi in Washington last week to discuss the UN nuclear watchdog’s impasse with Iran on inspection access.
Most recently, Iran has blocked IAEA access to its TESA Karaj centrifuge component manufacturing workshop despite an agreement reached with the agency in September to resume video surveillance of its nuclear sites across the country.
A senior US official said this month that Iran’s breakout time to build a nuclear weapon had been reduced from a year to a few months after former president Donald Trump withdrew from the deal, prompting Tehran to increase its nuclear activities in breach of the accord.
But negotiations with Iran in Vienna have made little headway since the sixth round of nuclear talks concluded under former president Hassan Rouhani in June.
Under Mr Rouhani, the two sides agreed in principle that the US would scale back its sweeping sectoral sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran scaling back its nuclear accord breaches — though differences remained on the status of some additional sanctions instated under Mr Trump.
Iran has not agreed to resume indirect talks since hard-line cleric and nuclear deal sceptic Ebrahim Raisi took office in August.
“The official reasons given by Iran for why we’re in hiatus are wearing very thin,” Mr Malley said.
“We can understand some hiatus due to their transition — their election and transition — but at this point, it’s hard to find an innocent explanation for why they’re taking so long.”
He said officials in the Gulf and Europe have expressed a “shared impatience” with Iran’s continued refusal to return to Vienna for indirect talks with the US.
Mr Malley also said the Gulf states he visited indicated they would be open to deepening economic ties with Iran if US sanctions were lifted under a revived nuclear deal.
“They made clear that if this diplomatic path were pursued and should we reach an agreement, they wanted to engage with Iran more deeply on the economic front,” he said.
“But that could not be done if Iran were not in compliance with the [nuclear deal], because by definition, US sanctions remain on the books.”