WASHINGTON – As negotiations concerning Iran’s nuclear program enter the final stages, U.S. officials are attempting to proactively set the narrative as it emerged last week that several of the U.S. negotiating team had stepped down.
White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk expressed the Biden administration’s most optimistic statement yet concerning the talks last Thursday, saying that the parties were “in the ballpark of a possible deal” on returning to the 2015 nuclear agreement. However, he noted that he did not want to place odds on it and that the U.S. was prepared for talks to collapse without a deal.
McGurk told an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that negotiations were “close to a culmination point,” which tracks with the assessment that Iran is imminently approaching a point of no return that will effectively render the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action irrelevant.
The State Department is publicly stressing the urgency of taking advantage of the current window of opportunity, which is increasingly narrowing by all accounts.
McGurk’s remarks came a day after the U.S. and Israel held their regular strategic dialogue on Iran, led by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Eyal Hulata.
The White House issued a joint statement following the virtual meeting, noting that “while the United States remains committed to diplomacy as the best means for preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, the United States is preparing alternative options, in coordination with its partners, should diplomacy fail.”
McGurk and Sullivan’s messaging follows a Wall Street Journal report that the U.S. deputy special envoy on the Iran team, Richard Nephew, stepped down, along with two other negotiators, due to frustration over lack of toughness with Tehran and a disagreement about when to walk away from negotiations.
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Nephew, largely credited with crafting the economic sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table prior to the 2015 deal, is currently still with the State Department despite not participating in any of the negotiations since December.
The nuclear talks between the U.S. and Iran restarted last spring, some three years after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA. The new indirect talks, conducted via European mediators, were put on hold by Iran following the election of hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi as the country’s new president last June. Negotiations finally resumed at the end of November after a months-long hiatus.
McGurk noted last Thursday that the U.S. could have left negotiations when Iran presented a new set of demands in that first round of renewed talks following Raisi’s election, but instead opted to present a united front alongside its negotiating partners – including France, Germany, Italy and Russia – against such proposals.
This led to a collapse of the Iranian rial to an “all-time low,” according to McGurk, “and the Iranians came back a week later with completely different proposals.”
U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley also noted last week that a deal is unlikely to be reached unless Iran releases four U.S. citizens it is currently holding.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price was asked about McGurk’s “ballpark” comment at last Thursday’s departmental press briefing. “I don’t want to characterize precisely where we are beyond what you’ve heard us say during the course of this round, and that is to say that there has been some progress achieved,” he told the media.
“But if we are to get there, that progress needs to outpace the speed with which Tehran’s nuclear program has moved forward, has advanced,” he added. “So we need to see progress be more than modest. We need to see it be more than incremental. We need to see that progress continue and quicken if we are going to get there in time to effect a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.”