WASHINGTON – The United States and its closest partners are stepping up pressure on Iran to return to stalled nuclear negotiations, warning that it will face greater international isolation, new economic penalties and possibly military action if it forges ahead with its atomic program.
In a series of high-level diplomatic meetings this week in Washington, U.S.. European, Israeli and Arab officials agreed on the need to make clear to Iran that its continued resistance to rejoining the talks in Vienna will not be ignored or left unpunished.
The consensus comes amid growing concerns that Tehran is not serious about returning to the negotiations aimed at bringing both Iran and the United States back into compliance with the languishing landmark 2015 nuclear deal that former President Donald Trump withdrew from three years later.
It also comes as the Biden administration, which had made rejoining the accord a priority in its first months in office, and others become increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for such negotiations even if they do resume.
Iran was at the top of the agenda in all the meetings that brought together top diplomats from the European Union, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to officials who participated, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed.
The U.S. special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, is continuing the Iran conversation with Gulf Arab states this weekend, while the head of the United Nations' atomic watchdog, Rafael Grossi, will be in Washington next week for further discussions.
Iran has hinted it’s ready to return to indirect negotiations with the U.S. but has not yet committed to a date. The EU, which has been charged with organizing the talks, has reported that Iran may not be willing to do so anytime soon and wants to meet with Borrell and others in Brussels before returning to Vienna.
As the new Iranian government led by hardline President Ebrahim Raisi delays, it has continued to blow through limits on it nuclear activities that had been constrained by the deal, including enriching uranium to higher levels. This has alarmed U.S. officials who fear that if such activity continues, a return to the 2015 deal may be pointless.
Borrell, whose top aide just returned from a visit to Tehran to gauge the position of the government, said he is willing to meet with Iranians ahead of a resumption in the Vienna talks. But he said enough time had already passed for Raisi and his team, which took office in August, to prepare.
“I’m ready to do that if they want to come to Brussels. But time is pressing,” Borrell told reporters Friday. “I understand that the new government requires time to study the file, to instruct the negotiation team, but this time has already passed. It’s time to go back to the negotiations.”
Asked about the possibility of a failure in negotiations and what might follow — something often referred to as “Plan B” — Borrell replied: “I don’t want to think about ‘Plan Bs.’ No ‘Plan B’ that I could imagine would be a good one.”
“We’re in a very dangerous place,” Prince Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, told reporters at a separate news conference Friday, noting Iran's accelerating nuclear work. “I think we need to focus on a quick resumption of talks (and) suspension of these activities by Iran."
After meeting Lapid on Wednesday, Blinken offered a bleak assessment of the situation. In a rare acknowledgment by the U.S. that it is looking at what to do in the event diplomacy with Iran fails, he said the window for Iran to return to the talks is closing but declined to give a date at which it would be too late.
“Time is running short,” he said. “We are prepared to turn to other options if Iran doesn’t change course, and these consultations with our allies and partners are part of it. We will look at every option to deal with the challenge posed by Iran.”
Lapid was more blunt, raising anew Israel’s warnings that it will act, with military force if necessary, to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
“There are moments when nations must use force to protect the world from evil,” Lapid said. “If a terror regime is going to acquire a nuclear weapon we must act. We must make clear that the civilized world won’t allow it. If the Iranians don’t believe the world is serious about stopping them, they will race to the bomb.”
A senior Israeli official who participated in the talks told reporters that Lapid’s visit to Washington, which also included meetings with Vice President Kamala Harris and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, “was a very intimate discussion about what should be done” if Iran refuses to engage or engage seriously.
The official said Israel was pleased that the Biden administration was hardening its position and said Israel believes it is “important to give (Iran) the feeling of encirclement.”
Speaking ahead of his visit to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Malley, the U.S. envoy, said the Biden administration's preferred approach remains a diplomatic one. He stressed that consultations are picking up on other options.
“We will be prepared to adjust to a different reality in which we have to deal with all options to address Iran’s nuclear program if it’s not prepared to come back,” he said. “There is every possibility that Iran will choose a different path, and we need to coordinate with Israel and other partners in the region.”