Senior U.S. Officials Present Tougher Stance Ahead of Iran Nuclear Talks

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
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A general view of the White House in Washington, July.
A general view of the White House in Washington, July.Credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON - Senior U.S. diplomatic and military officials are presenting a notably tougher posture ahead of next week's latest planned round of talks surrounding Iran's nuclear program. The officials' positioning comes as Israel and U.S. disagreements over negotiations are growing increasingly public.

Rob Malley, the Biden administration's special envoy on Iran, told Ben Rhodes's "Pod Save the World" podcast that "everything we're hearing from Iran's new team leads me to be rather pessimistic" ahead of the seventh round of indirect talks on the 2015 nuclear deal set for the end of November.

Meanwhile, the commander of U.S. Central Command told Time magazine that Iran is "very close" to enriching uranium to weapon-grade levels and the U.S. is prepared for military action if necessary.

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"The diplomats are in the lead on this, but Central Command always has a variety of plans that we could execute, if directed," General Kenneth McKenzie told the magazine.

"They're very close this time," he said. "I think they like the idea of being able to break out."

Should Iran enrich enough uranium for a nuclear bomb, it would still need over a year to develop the capability of actually delivering it, McKenzie said. But he also noted that Iran has already shown its missiles are able to strike targets with precision: "The one thing the Iranians have done over the last three-to-five years is they built a very capable ballistic missile platform."

Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, testifies before the House Armed Services Committee, September.Credit: Olivier Douliery/Pool via REUTERS

McKenzie's comments came ahead of the resumption of talks toward a new nuclear deal next week, and a day after Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel would not be bound by another deal. In January, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, chief of staff of Israel's military, said it would be a mistake for the U.S. to return to the deal and that military action had to be on the table.

On Tuesday, the head of the United Nations' atomic watchdog met with Iranian officials, saying Wednesday that the negotiations in Tehran had been inconclusive.

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspectors remain unable to access surveillance footage and face greater challenges in trying to monitor Tehran’s rapidly growing uranium stockpile, some of which is now enriched up to 60 percent purity — a short technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90 percent.

Under a confidential agreement called an “Additional Protocol” with Iran, the IAEA collects and analyzes images from a series of surveillance cameras installed at Iranian nuclear sites. Those cameras helped it monitor Tehran’s program to see if it is complying with the nuclear deal.

Iran’s hard-line parliament in December 2020 approved a bill that would suspend part of UN inspections of its nuclear facilities if European signatories did not provide relief from oil and banking sanctions by February. Since February, the IAEA has been unable to access imagery from the surveillance cameras.

Under the deal, the IAEA also placed around 2,000 tamper-proof seals on nuclear material and equipment. Those seals communicated electronically to inspectors. Automated measuring devices also provided real-time data from the program. Inspectors haven’t been able to access that data either, making the task of monitoring Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile that much more difficult.

The agency also has sought monitoring of activities at a centrifuge parts production site near the northern city of Karaj. The IAEA has had no access there since June after Iran said a sabotage attack by Israel considerably damaged the facility and an IAEA camera there.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. 

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