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Opinion Time for talking with Iran is running out

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri, leaves after a meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in Vienna on Dec. 3. (Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images)
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The Biden administration had hopes of reviving the 2015 multilateral deal that had restrained Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons in return for sanctions relief — which President Donald Trump repudiated in 2018, in favor of heightened sanctions on Tehran. Those hopes were never terribly high, given the hard-line drift of the Iranian regime since Mr. Trump’s move, which intensified further with the election last June of a new Iranian president who opposes the 2015 deal. After five days of fruitless talks between Iran and the United States’ European allies in Vienna last week, reviving the 2015 deal seems more quixotic than ever. President Biden must prepare in deadly earnest for what comes next in the Middle East.

The talks adjourned on Friday, with resumption expected on Wednesday. So there is still a theoretical chance Iran will re-engage based on the idea, floated by the United States’ allies, of gradually restoring the original deal through carefully sequenced mutual concessions. But diplomats from Germany, France and Britain issued a pessimistic statement Friday noting that Iran has “backtracked” on previous tenuous progress by hardening its demand that relief from a wide range of U.S. sanctions must precede restoration of nuclear restrictions.

Though Iran has not officially pulled out of the 2015 deal, it has recently stepped up its uranium enrichment far beyond what the deal would have permitted. Ninety percent enrichment is considered weapons grade, and Iran has reached 20 percent at an underground nuclear facility in Fordow that it was supposed to mothball under the 2015 deal, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. It’s hard to know precisely what Iran is doing because it has limited access to IAEA inspectors.

Under the circumstances, it appears increasingly likely that Iran is treating the Vienna sessions as an opportunity to air grievances against the United States, and make demands it knows the Biden administration cannot meet, as a prelude to definitive repudiation of the deal. Of all the problems the Trump administration created for its successor, the prospect of confrontation with an Iran pursuing ramped-up nuclear weapons and missile development ranks as one of the most difficult. Imperfect and risky as it was, the 2015 deal at least bought time to avoid that scenario. Now, however, Israel is watching nervously, reserving the right to strike Iran militarily. Iranian retaliation could trigger a regional war, drawing in neighboring Arab countries and, ultimately, the United States.

If diplomacy fails at Vienna, it must be pursued in other venues: specifically, the United States will have to forge a common approach among its European and Middle Eastern allies, one that simultaneously deters Iran, punishes aggression and dangles rewards for peaceful behavior. Russia and China — which endorsed the original 2015 deal due to their own concerns about a nuclear-armed Iran — will be in a position either to spoil U.S. strategy or, quietly, enable it. There are no good options. The skill with which the Biden administration manages the limited alternatives available could make or break its foreign policy, and the stability of the Middle East.