Iran is weeks away from having the fuel needed to power an atomic weapon, according to the State Department, which says that negotiations over a revamped nuclear deal will conclude in the coming weeks—even if the parties fail to reach a deal.
Iran will have enough fissile material enriched to weapons-grade capacity in "weeks, not months," a senior State Department official told reporters on Monday following the conclusion of another round of indirect talks with Iran and world powers in Vienna.
Following 10 months of negotiations, the State Department says diplomacy will cease in the coming weeks whether Iran takes a deal or not. This is because the Biden administration assesses that Iran’s nuclear program will have become so advanced that reentering the 2015 nuclear accord will provide no benefits to U.S. and global national security. In the years since President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal, Iran has enriched uranium, the key component in a bomb, to extremely high levels of purity. It also has booted international nuclear inspectors from the country and ramped up its installation of advanced nuclear centrifuges.
"We are in the final stretch because, as we’ve said now for some time, this can’t go on forever because of Iran’s nuclear advances," the senior State Department official said. "This is not a prediction. It’s not a threat. It’s not an artificial deadline. It’s just a requirement that we’ve conveyed indirectly to Iran and to all our [international] partners for some time, which is that given the pace of Iran’s advances, its nuclear advances, we only have a handful of weeks left to get a deal, after which point it will unfortunately be no longer possible to return to the [deal] and to recapture the nonproliferation benefits that the deal provided for us."
The United States has made clear to the Iranians and other world powers involved in the talks—including China and Russia—that the "final moment" for diplomacy is fast approaching.
As the clock ticks down on talks, the ball rests in Iran’s court. Negotiations are paused as Iranian diplomats travel back to Tehran to consult with the hardline ruling government. If Iran takes the deal, virtually all U.S. sanctions imposed by the Trump administration will evaporate, giving the regime access to billions of dollars in cash. While the Biden administration has made overtures to Tehran since negotiations started last year—including unwinding some sanctions and not enforcing others—it remains unclear if the promise of cash will be enough to convince Tehran to roll back its nuclear advances.
The United States says a proposal has already been presented and that now is the time "for Iran to decide whether it’s prepared to make those decisions necessary" for a deal to be struck. The Biden administration is prepared to deal with any scenario, according to the State Department.
"We know that it is very possible that Iran chooses not to go down that path, and we are ready to deal with that contingency," the senior official said. "We hope that’s not the decision that Iran makes, but we are prepared to deal with either one of them." The official stopped short of mentioning a military alternative to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.
Negotiations also have been slowed by Iran’s refusal to negotiate with the United States directly, leaving countries such as Russia as a go-between.
Pressed on the steps the United States will take if Iran does not agree to a deal, the State Department official said pressure will be increased through sanctions.
"That means more pressure—economic, diplomatic, and otherwise," the senior official said. "That’s not a future that we aspire to, but it’s one that we’re ready" for.