WASHINGTON - Diplomats negotiating in Vienna to revive a 2015 deal that curbed the Iranian nuclear program have paused talks until next week, with officials from the United States and Europe criticizing Iran for a lack of progress.
'What we've seen in the last couple of days is that Iran right now does not seem to be serious about doing what's necessary to return to compliance, which is why we ended this round of talks in Vienna,' U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday, addressing a virtual conference of world leaders organized by the Reuters news agency.
'If the path to a return to compliance with the agreement turns out to be a dead end, we will pursue other options,' he added, without giving further details.
A U.S. State Department spokesman said Friday on background that earlier rounds of negotiations with Iran 'made progress, finding creative compromise solutions to many of the hardest issues that were difficult for all sides.' But, he said, 'Iran's approach this week was not, unfortunately, to try to resolve the remaining issues.'
European officials also expressed frustration toward Iran over the talks, which began Monday.
A statement Friday from senior officials from France, Britain and Germany - the three European powers acting as mediators in the nuclear talks - said, 'This week, [Iran] has backtracked on diplomatic progress made.'
The United States and Iran resumed indirect negotiations in Vienna on Monday, with the mediators seeking to bring both sides back into compliance with the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. U.S. and Iranian negotiators previously held six inconclusive rounds of indirect talks in Vienna from April to June, when Iran suspended the negotiations ahead of its presidential election that month.
Under the JCPOA, Iran promised it would curb nuclear activities that could be weaponized in return for international sanctions relief. Tehran denies seeking nuclear weapons.
The prior U.S. administration of former President Donald Trump quit the JCPOA in 2018, saying it was not tough enough on Iran, and reimposed U.S. sanctions. Iran retaliated a year later by starting to publicly exceed JCPOA limits on its nuclear activities. Trump's successor, President Joe Biden, has said he wants to honor the deal again if Iran does the same.
The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed Iran's latest breach of JCPOA limits on Wednesday, saying it has begun using advanced centrifuges at its underground nuclear facility in Fordo to enrich uranium up to 20% purity, a short step away from weapons-grade levels.
Israel, a key U.S. ally whose destruction Iran has vowed to pursue, reacted to that news with alarm. The Israeli government said Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke by phone with Blinken on Thursday and accused Tehran of using its Fordo advances as "nuclear blackmail" in the JCPOA talks. It said Bennett urged the United States and other world powers to respond by stopping the negotiations immediately.
Blinken made his comment about determining the Iranian negotiators' seriousness in "the next day or two" as he responded to a reporter asking what he thought of Bennett's appeal. "We will not accept the status quo of Iran building its [nuclear] program on the one hand and dragging its feet in talks on the other. That's not going to last," Blinken added.
It was the first time that Blinken or any other Biden administration official has publicly stated such a specific and short timeframe for assessing Iran's negotiating position, after months of declining to do so while also saying that time was running short.
In comments to reporters Thursday in Vienna, Iranian chief nuclear negotiator and Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Ali Bagheri Kani said Tehran is prepared to continue the talks if "they are ready" to do the same, in apparent reference to the U.S. and other Western powers.
Britain, France and Germany, the three European powers acting as mediators in the JCPOA talks, already had toughened their stance toward Iran last week, issuing a statement expressing "deep concern" that Iran is "permanently and irreversibly upgrading its nuclear capabilities and exposing the international community to significant risk."
Blinken's short timeline for Iran to show seriousness also came a day after Iran handed two proposals to the Western powers for the U.S. sanctions that it wants to be lifted and for the nuclear limits it is prepared to resume in return for the U.S. sanctions relief.
Iran has repeatedly insisted that it wants all sanctions imposed by the U.S. in recent years to be lifted, regardless of whether the U.S. justified the measures as responses to Iran's nuclear activities, alleged involvement in terrorism or alleged human rights abuses. Tehran has not publicly outlined what nuclear concessions it is willing to make.
"My understanding from the latest news reporting is that [Iran's proposals] have been maximalist demands that are unworkable for the United States," said Jason Brodsky, policy director of U.S. advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran, in a VOA interview.
Iran analyst and JCPOA critic Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies told VOA that a serious negotiating approach by Iran would mean not only dropping its demand that the talks focus initially on sanctions relief but also proposing a timetable for returning to Iranian compliance with the JCPOA's nuclear limits.
Brodsky said Blinken's Thursday remarks also could give Iran an opening to prolong the JCPOA talks in other ways.
"Even though the hour is getting very late," Blinken said, "it is not too late for Iran to reverse course and engage meaningfully in an effort to return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA."
Brodsky said Iran could accept IAEA demands to restore U.N. inspectors' access to cameras at a centrifuge workshop in Karaj after blocking such access for months. "It would be a token concession to keep the process going," he said.
Ryan Costello, policy director of pro-JCPOA U.S. advocacy group National Iranian American Council, said Iran's nuclear negotiators may be posturing in such a way that it would take time for the U.S. to figure out what their bottom line is.
"There are likely to be consultations in capitals and so forth, and the process will play out in weeks and months, not a couple of days," he predicted to VOA.
VOA Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine contributed to this report. Some information came from Agence France-Presse and Reuters.