Iran nuclear deal: US officials give 'sobering and shocking' update

With Iran’s breakout time to build a nuclear weapon down to a matter of weeks, some senators are threatening a vote to block US re-entry into the JCPOA

Ted Cruz arrives at a closed Iran briefing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the US Capitol on Wednesday. Getty Images
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Several key US officials on Wednesday briefed the Senate on the status of diplomatic efforts to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, with a number of senators describing the updates as “sobering".

The briefers at the closed hearing were Robert Malley, the lead US negotiator in the indirect nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna, National Security Council co-ordinator for the Middle East Brett McGurk, and an intelligence community official.

“That was a sobering and shocking briefing about where we are right now,” Democrat Chris Murphy told The National after the briefing.

“The information we got on breakout time is something we all have to really think about.”

Democrats Bob Menendez and Tim Kaine joined Republican James Risch in echoing Mr Murphy’s assessment. And Republican Ted Cruz called the briefing “troubling".

Still, the senators remain divided over President Joe Biden's attempts at diplomacy with Iran. Tehran has made significant technical advances since former president Donald Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018.

Since then, Iran’s breakout time to build a nuclear weapon has fallen from about a year under the original deal down to a matter of weeks. And The Wall Street Journal reported last week that US officials expect Iran’s breakout time to be significantly less than a year under a restored nuclear deal.

“There’s still significant gaps between the US and Iranian side,” Mr Murphy said.

“A deal’s possible, but there’s a lot of work that has to be done.

“There needs to be modifications reflecting the reality of what’s happened since Trump’s decision to withdraw.

“It would largely be a re-entry to the agreement, but you’d have to make some modifications because of their work on advanced centrifuges.”

Any modifications to the original accord could allow Republicans — aided by a few sympathetic Democrats — to force a vote attempting to block a new accord.

Mr Risch, the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, explicitly threatened to do so in a letter to Mr Biden, cosigned by 31 of his Republican colleagues.

“On the Iranian side, during the first year of your administration, the regime has made qualitative progress towards a nuclear arsenal that requires new measures to reverse, far beyond anything envisioned by the [nuclear deal],” they wrote.

Mr Risch told reporters after the Wednesday briefing that the Biden administration’s previous promises for a “longer and stronger” Iran deal are “not going to happen".

But Mr Risch and his allies are unlikely to muster the 60 votes necessary needed to tank any new agreement, due to a Senate procedural mechanism called the filibuster.

They could, however, draw support from high-profile Democrats opposed to the deal such as Mr Menendez and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — both of whom were among four Democrats to vote against the original deal in 2015.

Mr Menendez went so far as to deliver an hour-long speech on the Senate floor last week urging the Biden administration to “exert more pressure on Iran” and questioning the wisdom of salvaging the agreement.

And Mr Cruz, who signed on to Mr Risch’s letter, said after the Wednesday briefing that Mr Biden’s only chance of success would be to continue the “maximum pressure campaign” instated under Mr Trump — which consisted of crippling sanctions on Iran.

Notably, the Biden administration has not removed any of Mr Trump's major economic sanctions on Iran and has indicated it will not do so until an agreement is reached through the indirect talks in Vienna.

The State Department has, however, waived sanctions on Iran's civilian nuclear programme in a technical step necessary to return to the 2015 nuclear agreement.

“The Biden administration’s prepared to surrender everything,” Mr Cruz told reporters after the briefing.

“They desperately want a deal, and I don’t think there’s anything they’re unwilling to give to get a deal.

“Because they chose to pursue a hard-left policy of appeasement, the next Republican president will rip to shreds whatever disastrous deal they negotiate.”

Updated: February 09, 2022, 7:38 PM