US officials reported modest gains during the talks in Vienna, but cautioned that nuclear advances would soon become irreversible.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said there are only “a few weeks” left to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal before it becomes too difficult to reverse Tehran’s progress.
Blinken spoke Thursday as negotiations continued in Vienna between Tehran and other signatories to the 2015 accord, which former US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018.
The United States is participating in the talks indirectly, with Washington and Tehran, despite the trade-laden rhetoric, having recently reported modest gains after months of near-stalemate. The latest round of talks resumed in November.
“I think we only have a few weeks left to see if we can go back to mutual compliance,” Blinken said in an interview with US public radio station NPR.
“We have a very, very short time,” he said, because “Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where it can produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon in a very, very short time.”
Blinken added that Tehran’s nuclear progress “will become increasingly difficult to reverse because they are learning things, doing new things as a result of breaking their shackles under the agreement.”
The nuclear deal offered relief from much-needed international sanctions on Iran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program.
Trump re-imposed his “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign after withdrawing from the agreement, and since then Tehran has increasingly violated the restrictions in the agreement, arguing that it is no longer bound by the agreement after the US withdrawal.
US President Joe Biden has made returning to the deal a top priority, while newly elected Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, despite his more hawkish stance than his predecessor, is eager to get rid of crushing sanctions.
In an interview with Al Jazeera in early January, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said a return to the deal could be reached if “all forms of sanctions stipulated in the nuclear deal” were lifted – an apparent softening of the previous government’s calls To the full lifting of all sanctions, even those imposed on human rights grounds.
Blinken said on Thursday that reviving the deal “would be the best outcome for America’s security.”
“But if we can’t, we are looking at other steps and other options” with allies, including in Europe and the Middle East, he added.
These “other options” – often seen as an implicit threat of military action – have been “the subject of intense work as well in the past weeks and months,” Blinken said.
“We are ready for either course.”