The United States and France have warned Iran that time is running out to return to a nuclear deal, voicing fears that Tehran’s sensitive atomic activities could advance if talks drag on.
On the first high-level visit to Paris by President Joe Biden’s administration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his French hosts saluted a new spirit of cooperation on Friday after four years of turbulence under Donald Trump.
But the two sides said one key Biden promise – to return to the 2015 accord on the Iranian nuclear programme trashed by Trump – was at risk if Tehran does not make concessions during talks that have been going on for months in Vienna.
Blinken warned that the US still had “serious differences” with Iran, which has kept negotiating since last week’s presidential election won by hardliner Ebrahim Raisi.
“There will come a point, yes, where it will be very hard to return back to the standards set by the JCPOA,” Blinken told reporters, using the formal name of the accord.
“We haven’t reached that point – I can’t put a date on it – but it’s something that we’re conscious of.”
Blinken warned that if Iran “continues to spin ever more sophisticated centrifuges” and steps up uranium enrichment, it will bring nearer the “breakout” time at which it will be dangerously close to the ability to develop a nuclear bomb.
But Blinken said Biden still supported a return to the accord, under which Iran had drastically scaled back its nuclear work until Trump withdrew in 2018 and imposed crippling sanctions.
“We have a national interest in trying to put the nuclear problem back in the box that it was in the JCPOA,” Blinken said.
Iran’s foreign ministry responded by saying that world powers must take any final decisions to revive the deal and that Iran will return to full compliance after the removal of US sanctions.
Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said that during the Vienna talks, “it has been constantly stressed that the Islamic Republic of Iran is fully prepared to stop its remedial efforts and restart implementing its commitments under the JCPOA with the condition that it is fully implemented by the US”.
An agreement on restoring the accord would be possible if the US stops using its sanctions as leverage, he said, adding that “it is the other sides that need to make their decision”.
Meanwhile, Blinken also said that any failure by Tehran to extend a monitoring agreement with the United Nations nuclear watchdog that expired this week would be a “serious concern” in talks to revive its nuclear deal with world powers.
Iran has been in talks with world powers since April about reviving the 2015 deal under which it agreed to the curbs on its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions. The Vienna talks are now in a pause, expected to last until next week.
After the US under Trump abandoned the deal in 2018, Iran responded by violating some of its restrictions. Tehran and Washington have yet to agree which side should take what steps, and when to revive the accord.
One of Iran’s moves to reduce compliance was a decision to end extra monitoring of its nuclear sites by the IAEA in February. The inspections were extended twice by temporary deals, the last of which ended this week.
“This remains a serious concern,” Blinken told reporters at a news conference in Paris alongside his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian. “The concern has been communicated to Iran and needs to be resolved.”
The UN nuclear watchdog said later on Friday it had received no reply from Tehran over the possible extension of the monitoring agreement, which lapsed on Thursday.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a statement its director Rafael Grossi had written to Tehran about the matter on 17 June but that “Iran had not replied to his letter or indicated whether it intends to maintain the current arrangement”.
Grossi said “an immediate response from Iran is needed in this regard”.
Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, said later on Friday that Iran is “under no obligation” to extend its agreement with the watchdog as requested, but he also did not rule out the possibility that it could be extended.
“Undoubtedly, whatever decision Iran makes on this would strictly have a political basis and the agency cannot consider it a right for itself,” he said, pointing out that Iran is only obligated to adhere to its commitments under the general safeguards agreement with the IAEA.
France – which like the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia and China had stayed in the 2015 accord despite pressure from Trump – also ramped up pressure on Iran to move ahead.
“We expect the Iranian authorities to take the final decisions – no doubt difficult ones – which will allow the negotiations to be concluded,” Le Drian said at the joint news conference with Blinken.
Talks have stalled in part over Iran’s insistence on the lifting of all sanctions, pointing to the promises of economic relief under the accord.
The Biden administration says it is ready to lift economic measures related to nuclear work as laid out by the JCPOA – but that it will keep other sanctions, including over human rights and Iran’s support to armed groups in the Arab world.
Some experts believe that Iran had been waiting for the election of Raisi, whose hardline approach is backed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate arbiter of Iran’s foreign policy.
Analysts have said Iran could strike a deal before Raisi takes office in August – letting him take the credit for the expected economic boost but blame outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who championed a better relationship with the West, if the situation deteriorates.