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As Iran nuclear talks fail to make headway, Biden administration suggests increasing openness to a Plan B

From left, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan at the State Department on Oct. 13.
From left, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan at the State Department on Oct. 13. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/Reuters)
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Secretary of State Antony Blinken and two of his Middle Eastern counterparts on Wednesday discussed potential alternatives for addressing Iran’s nuclear program should diplomacy founder, as Tehran expands uranium enrichment and delays the resumption of negotiations aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal.

Blinken’s meetings with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan were convened to celebrate the anniversary of the 2020 Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and three Arab nations — the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan. The gathering occurred as Iran appears to be inching closer to being able to produce a nuclear weapon.

In remarks to reporters after a trilateral meeting, Blinken said the Biden administration remained hopeful that a negotiated solution would emerge. But he noted that diplomats have been waiting for months for Iran to signal its readiness to resume talks and walk back nuclear advances it has made outside the parameters of the original agreement.

“The runway that we have left to do that is getting shorter and shorter,” Blinken said. “So we are watching Iran’s comments, posture, very, very carefully and . . . we are prepared to turn to other options if Iran doesn’t change course.”

Future of nuclear talks uncertain as Tehran expands enrichment

The remarks suggest a shift within the Biden administration as hopes fade for a swift return to the deal, the revival of which Joe Biden laid out as a central goal as he ran for president — and as a significant point of contrast with President Donald Trump, who withdrew the United States from the agreement in 2018.

Experts say advances in Iran’s uranium enrichment have put the country closer to nuclear weapon capability and may be reaching a point where they are irreversible.

The harder, more impatient line was also reflected in comments earlier Wednesday by Robert Malley, the administration’s special representative to the Iran negotiations. Progress in the talks, which began in April but were suspended in the wake of Iran’s presidential elections in June, will require “Iran’s willingness to say yes” to returning to the original terms of the deal, Malley said on a podcast produced by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“If not,” he said, “we will be prepared to adjust to a reality in which we have to be prepared for all options.”

Before the talks were suspended, six sessions had been held in Vienna between Iran and the five remaining parties to the original agreement — France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China — with the Europeans acting as go-betweens after Iran refused direct negotiations with the United States.

Both sides said progress had been made, although both have indicated they want more than the other may be willing or able to give. The administration offered Iran an accounting of nuclear-related sanctions it was prepared to lift. Iran indicated it was prepared to reverse advances in its nuclear program to where it stood when Trump pulled out.

Those advances include a sharp increase in the quantity and quality of uranium it is enriching, bringing its “breakout” period — the amount of time it would take to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon — from one year under the deal to a few months at most.

Iran’s new government under President Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-line cleric, has said it plans to return to the negotiating table “soon,” but it has not said when or whether it will accept tentative agreements that had been reached in earlier sessions or will demand a return to the beginning.

Hardening U.S. and Iranian stances complicate negotiations to revive nuclear deal

Malley declined to set a deadline for resumption, saying Iran’s return with a “realistic view of how to come back to compliance” was more important than a date. Otherwise, he said, it will “force us to take some decisions.”

Speaking alongside Blinken and his Emirati counterpart, Lapid said Iran would not be permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon.

“Other options are going to be on the table if diplomacy fails,” he said. “And by saying other options, I think everybody understands here, in Israel, in the Emirates and in Tehran what is it that we mean,” Lapid said in an apparent reference to military force.

President Biden is under domestic and Israeli pressure to take a tough line, preparing for what Israeli officials have called a Plan B. In many ways, the Israelis are already implementing elements of such a plan, only superficially denying responsibility for covert attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities and scientists.

Malley acknowledged differences between the United States and Israel over the issue but noted that the new government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wants “to keep those differences behind closed doors as much as possible,” in contrast with Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Foreign ministers of the three European partners in the nuclear agreement met with their new Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly last month.

“Iran is still very coy about its intentions, and discussions are now being held among the [European] three and the United States on what carrots, what sticks,” are available to them if Iran does not return to the talks in earnest, said one European official who participated in the earlier discussions.

“We talk about a Plan B all the time,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomatic issue, with alternatives including reimposition of U.N. sanctions, more travel and asset freezes, and greater restrictions on Iranian oil exports — primarily to China — that are slipping through sanctions cracks.

The Israeli-Emirati-U.S. talks occurred as senior officials from six Arab nations that have normalized relations with Israel gathered together with their Israeli counterparts for the first time. The gathering, convened in the UAE over two days by the Atlantic Council and the Jeffrey Talpins Foundation, brought together Emirati, Egyptian, Jordanian, Moroccan, Sudanese, Bahraini and Israeli officials.