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U.S.-Iran nuclear negotiations in Qatar end without breakthrough

"We will keep working with even greater urgency," said the E.U. official who served as an intermediary between the chief Iranian negotiator and Biden envoy Rob Malley.
An Iranian flag at the Bushehr nuclear power plant during an official ceremony to kick-start work on a second reactor at the facility on Nov. 10, 2019.Atta Kenare / AFP - Getty Images file

Indirect talks between Iran and the U.S. have ended in Doha, Qatar, with no sign of a breakthrough in efforts to revive a 2015 nuclear deal, raising the risk of a potential confrontation with Tehran in coming months.

“Unfortunately, not yet the progress the EU team as coordinator had hoped-for. We will keep working with even greater urgency to bring back on track a key deal for non-proliferation and regional stability,” European Union envoy Enrique Mora tweeted, calling the discussions “intense.”

Mora was the intermediary in the Qatari capital between Iranian chief negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani and President Joe Biden’s special envoy, Rob Malley, passing messages back and forth between the two sides. Iran has refused to hold direct talks with the U.S. team.

The 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was designed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Former President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA in 2018, and the Biden administration has been trying to revive it.

But with the prospects for salvaging the agreement looking increasingly bleak, the Biden administration is coming under growing pressure in Washington and from Middle Eastern allies to consider other options to counter Iran’s nuclear program, former officials, congressional aides and analysts said.

At the request of senators two weeks ago, the Biden administration provided a closed-door classified briefing on Iran, laying out possible “Plan B” options if diplomacy fails to rescue the 2015 nuclear deal, lawmakers said. Biden is due to visit Israel and Saudi Arabia next month, and Iran’s nuclear program is expected to be at the top of the agenda.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Nasser Kanani, said Wednesday that the talks in Doha were “held in a professional and serious atmosphere” and that the plan from the outset was to hold two days of discussions.

The U.S., however, accused Iran of being the source of the stalemate.

“In Doha, as before, we made clear our readiness to quickly conclude and implement a deal,” a State Department spokesperson said. “Yet in Doha, as before, Iran raised issues wholly unrelated to the JCPOA and apparently is not ready to make a fundamental decision on whether it wants to revive the deal or bury it.”

The spokesperson expressed gratitude to the E.U. for its efforts but said the U.S. was “disappointed that Iran has, yet again, failed to respond positively to the E.U.’s initiative.”

Iran’s U.N. mission did not respond to a request for comment.

Neither side went to the Doha talks with any major new proposals, and there was no sign Iran had eased its negotiating demands, including insisting that the U.S. remove Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps from its terrorism blacklist, according to Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group think tank.

U.S. negotiators previously have made it clear that they view the Revolutionary Guard sanctions as outside the parameters of the 2015 deal and that Iran would need to offer an equivalent concession in return.

Iran also continues to demand that the U.S. offer guarantees that Washington will not pull out of the agreement again as Trump did. But U.S. officials say there is no way to provide that assurance given that elections might produce a different policy under a new U.S. president.

Negotiated during Barack Obama’s administration, the 2015 JCPOA imposed strict limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment work in return for an easing of economic sanctions. When Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018, he said that it was too lax and that it failed to address Iran’s missile program or its support of proxies across the Middle East. 

Since the U.S. exit, Iran has steadily surpassed the deal’s restrictions on its uranium enrichment work, building up stockpiles, running advanced centrifuges and blocking full access to the U.N. atomic watchdog agency. Arms control experts say Iran now could quickly produce weapons-grade uranium without being detected by U.N. inspectors.

An Iranian news agency, Tasnim, earlier described the negotiations as having had “no effect on breaking the deadlock in the talks.”

“What prevented these negotiations from coming to fruition is the U.S. insistence on its proposed draft text in Vienna that excludes any guarantee for Iran’s economic benefits,” Tasnim reported, citing informed sources at the talks.

Last year, Secretary of State Secretary Antony Blinken said the U.S. was “prepared to turn to other options” if the nuclear negotiations fail. U.S. officials have suggested the administration would be ready to tighten sanctions against Iran under that scenario.

European diplomats and former U.S. officials have told NBC News that the U.S. would be likely to introduce new sanctions against Iran and seek to more strictly enforce existing sanctions, with a particular focus on targeting Tehran’s oil sales to China. Potential sabotage operations against the nuclear program also could be on the table.