The US State Department spokesperson expressed some optimism about the prospects of salvaging the Iran nuclear deal, but stressed that divisions remain between the United States and Iran.
“A deal is closer now than it was two weeks ago, but the outcome of these ongoing discussions still remains uncertain as gaps do remain,” Ned Price said at a State Department briefing.
In early August, the European Union put forward what its top diplomat Josep Borrell called “a final text” to restore the deal and called for answers from Washington and Tehran. Iran submitted its response last week; the US has yet to respond. Borrell said Monday that the Iranian response was “reasonable.”
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On Monday, Price said that the US was still conducting consultations, telling reporters, “We are working as quickly as we can, as methodically as we can and as carefully as we can see to it that our response is complete. It takes into account the Iranian feedback and we’ll provide that to the EU as soon as we’re able.” He also said the US was “conveying (its) feedback directly and privately to the EU,” which serves as mediator between the two sides.
Price indicated Iran had complicated the negotiations, noting the US had been prepared to accept the EU “final text” deal, but Iran “responded with several comments.”
“This is why it has taken us some additional time to review those comments and to determine our response,” he said, adding that “had there been a clean Iranian response, a clear yes answer, I’m not sure that we would be in a back and forth the way we are now.”
Nonetheless, Price said the US is “encouraged by the fact that Iran appears to have dropped some of its non-starter demands,” including de-listing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization, but “there are still some outstanding issues that must be resolved, some gaps that must be bridged.”
He also reiterated the US desire for a quick mutual return to compliance with the deal “knowing the stakes of of the status quo” – namely, a short “breakout time” before Iran has enough fissile material needed to produce a nuclear weapon. A senior administration official said that the Biden administration believes that keeping the deal intact would increase that breakout time by months.
“The place we’re at now where Iran could produce enough material for a bomb within days to weeks is a very dangerous place to be. And extending that timeline under revived deal is a much better place to be,” said Eric Brewer, a senior director at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. “A six month breakout timeline in my view is sufficient. That that will provide enough time for the international community to detect any attempts by Iran to break out and the time to try and resolve it diplomatically before having to look at the potential of a military option.”
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Henry Rome, deputy head of research at the Eurasia Group, told CNN that even if a deal is reached, Iran is likely “going to continue on with what they’ve been doing until the start of the implementation process.”
“Then throughout that process, they’ll be required to take kind of physical steps to stop producing certain types of material, dispose of certain types of material, exporting it or other means, dismantling some equipment and steps like that,” he explained.
Price declined to detail what “outstanding issues” remain. Rome told CNN he believes “the two main substantive sticking points remain the issues around Iranian economic guarantees, as well as trying to find a way to square the circle on the (International Atomic Energy Agency) IAEA safeguards probe.”
The IAEA, which serves as the UN’s nuclear watchdog, has called for answers from Iran about why traces of enriched uranium were found at previously undeclared nuclear research sites three years ago. IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi told CNN’s Becky Anderson Monday that the agency would not drop that probe without “technically credible explanations” from Iran.
Rome noted that “the last European draft included that language (on the IAEA safeguards probe), the Iranians presumably did not object to that although they haven’t necessarily accepted it either.”
“It’s inextricably linked to this process as well, even if technically it’s separate, because the Iranians have been crystal clear that they won’t move forward with JCPOA if the safeguards issue is still hanging out there,” he said.
CNN’s Adam Pourahmadi contributed to this report.