Nov 29, 2021 - World

U.S. fears Iran won’t scale back to 2015 nuclear deal

Officials are seen sitting in a Vienna hotel ballroom during the first day of the latest round in nuclear talks with Iran.

Officials gather in Vienna on Sept. 29 for the first day of renewed nuclear talks with Iran. Photo: EU Vienna Delegation/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

U.S. officials have extremely low expectations as world powers resume negotiations with Iran to curb its nuclear program, believing the Iranians aren't yet ready to negotiate seriously, Axios is told.

Driving the news: Senior officials in the U.S. intelligence community have assessed the new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, thinks of his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, as a weak accommodationist who negotiated a bad deal with the U.S. and other world powers in 2015.

  • To the extent there's optimism within the Biden administration, it's rooted in the hope Raisi may ultimately be willing to negotiate a new agreement not so different from the last but branded a "Raisi" deal rather than a Rouhani one.
  • Former President Trump made his own effort to scrap everything that had Barack Obama's name attached to it.

Why it matters: The United States worked with the European Union and all the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, including Russia and China, to negotiate the 2015 deal. It curbed Iran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.

  • Trump scrapped the agreement in 2018. He accused Iran of supporting terrorism and having spurred upheaval in the Middle East.
  • He also criticized former President Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden and former secretary of State John Kerry for negotiating it.
  • Iran responded by ramping up its nuclear program.
  • The latest talks in Vienna will be the seventh round of meetings involving Iran, E.U. countries, the United Kingdom, Russia and China — but the first in nearly six months. The U.S. is an indirect participant.

The big picture: Top Biden officials are deeply worried Iran will go too far in its current nuclear development, making it too late to return to the 2015 agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), according to sources familiar with internal administration discussions.

  • The concern is rooted in the fact scientists can't unlearn the knowledge they gain once they develop advanced centrifuges.
  • The U.S. has been trying for years to avoid the binary choice between military intervention and Iran having a nuclear weapon.
  • That choice is getting uncomfortably closer — especially given the Israelis are on increasingly high alert that the Iranians appear to be moving closer toward the weaponization process.

What they're saying: In response to Axios' reporting, a State Department spokesperson said: "We have made clear that Iran's continued nuclear escalations are unconstructive and inconsistent with its stated goal of returning to mutual compliance with the JCPOA." 

  • The spokesperson insisted Iran's nuclear escalations "will not provide Iran any negotiating leverage as we return to talks."

Go deeper: "Scoop: Iran preparing to enrich weapons-grade uranium, Israel warns U.S."

Go deeper