Jul 27, 2022 - World

Scoop: Biden adviser says return to Iran deal "highly unlikely" in near future

Iranian flags

The flag of Iran in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters. Photo: Michael Gruber/Getty Images

White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk told a group of think tank experts last week it's “highly unlikely” that the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran will be revived in the near future, according to three U.S. sources who were on the call.

Why it matters: The shrinking likelihood that the deadlock in the nuclear talks will be broken increases the pressure on the Biden administration to formulate a Plan B.

Behind the scenes: McGurk said on the briefing call that the reason there is no nuclear deal is that the Iranians are unable to make a decision, according to the three sources.

  • McGurk said his theory is that Iran wants the U.S. “to add something to the pot” to help those who want a deal in the internal debate with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but “we are not going to do that."
  • With a deal highly unlikely in the near future, McGurk said the Biden administration intends to use sanctions and diplomatic isolation against Iran, “but not needlessly escalate the situation," and use force only as a last resort, according to the three sources.
  • He said the divergence of views with Israel isn't about the issue of a possible military strike, but about whether the U.S. should still try to revive the 2015 nuclear deal or shift to pushing for a “longer and stronger” deal.
  • The White House declined to comment.

State of play: The most recent round of indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran a month ago in Qatar ended with no progress and no date set for another round.

  • During his trip to the Middle East, President Biden said the U.S. wouldn't "wait forever" for Iran to respond to its proposal to revive the deal.
  • U.S. officials are concerned the nuclear deal is close to becoming irrelevant, as Iran has taken steps to advance its nuclear program and limit the work of UN inspectors.

What they're saying: EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who is leading the mediation efforts between the U.S. and Iran, said in a Financial Times op-ed on Tuesday that after 15 months of negotiations he concluded that “the space for additional significant compromises has been exhausted."

  • Borrell wrote that he has put on the table a draft agreement that addresses, in detail, the lifting of sanctions by the U.S. as well as the nuclear steps that Iran must take.
  • “This text represents the best possible deal… decisions need to be taken now… if the deal is rejected, we risk a dangerous nuclear crisis," Borrell wrote.
  • On Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian spoke with Borrell on the phone and told him that if the United States takes a realistic step towards finding a solution and reaching an agreement, a good deal will be available to all parties, the Iranian foreign ministry said in a statement.
  • Abdollahian told Borrell that Iran welcomes the continuation of the path of diplomacy and negotiations. "America always states that it wants an agreement, so this approach should be seen in the text of the agreement and in practice," he said.
  • Borrell told his Iranian counterpart that he is ready to facilitate and accelerate this process through communication and consultation with all parties.

What’s next: U.S. Iran envoy Rob Malley and other Biden administration officials will give a classified briefing to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday about the negotiations and the status of the Iranian nuclear program.

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