US and European powers have resumed talks on how to deal with Iran over its nuclear activities amid growing fears that the Islamic Republic’s aggressive expansion of its program risks sparking a regional war.
The move marks a shift in Western thinking and underlines concerns about an escalating crisis as Tehran has enriched uranium to such levels that U.S. officials have warned in recent months it could produce enough material for a nuclear weapon in less than two weeks.
“It is recognized that we need an active diplomatic plan to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, rather than letting it drift,” said a Western diplomat. “What worries me is that Iran’s decision-making is quite chaotic and it could go to war with Israel.”
The US, France, Germany and the UK suspended diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in September after Tehran angered Western governments over a draft proposal to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, a violent crackdown on protesters against the regime, sold armed drones to Russia and arrested a number of European nationals.
But there have been contacts with Iranian officials in recent months, including a meeting in Oslo in March between officials from the so-called E3 — France, Germany and the UK — and Ali Bagheri Kani, Iran’s nuclear negotiator.
Rob Malley, the US envoy to Iran, has met several times with Iran’s UN ambassador Amir Saeid Iravani, who was a senior official at the Supreme National Security Council before being transferred to New York in September, diplomats and officials say. analysts.
Those talks would be the first direct contact between US and Iranian officials since former US President Donald Trump sparked the crisis in 2018 by withdrawing from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers, known by the abbreviation JCPOA. Trump imposed hundreds of sanctions on the republic, while Iran responded by aggressively ramping up its nuclear activity.
The talks focused on the possibility of a prisoner exchange with Iran, a person close to the government said. Tehran detains at least three US-Iranian nationals.
Tehran last week agreed to a prisoner exchange with Belgium and separately released two Austrians imprisoned in Iran. A successful US prisoner exchange could improve the climate for any nuclear talks.
US President Joe Biden promised to return to the JCPOA and ease sanctions if Tehran returned to compliance. But more recently, US officials have said the deal is “off the agenda,” indicating any agreement would be more limited.
Diplomats and analysts say possible options are some form of interim deal, or a de-escalating move by both sides with Iran lowering its enrichment levels in return for some sanctions relief.
“The prisoner exchange will be an opening for talks,” said another diplomat who was aware of the talks. “It is unlikely that there will be a nuclear deal, but something could come in between or a freeze.”
A US official said Washington “has always believed that diplomacy is the best way to demonstrably and durably ensure that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon,” adding: “But we have nothing to announce and we have no option of table.”
Iran has enriched uranium to a purity of 60 percent, and in January the International Atomic Energy Agency discovered particles at the Fordow plant enriched to about 84 percent, which is close to weapons-grade.
In the weeks since, Israeli officials have warned that the Jewish state will do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
News agencies this week cited leaked IAEA reports saying the UN watchdog had no further questions about the particles found at Fordow. That could ease pressure on Iran ahead of an IAEA board of governors meeting next week.
Sanam Vakil, an Iran expert at Chatham House, said: “There are efforts to revive thinking about the crisis, and it is very urgent because Iran is a nuclear threshold state. “Everyone is just looking for a Band-Aid.”
However, there is skepticism about Iran’s seriousness in addressing the nuclear issue and whether Biden would be willing to negotiate a deal as the US prepares for the next election cycle.
Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at Crisis Group, said: “E3 is mainly looking at Washington to see if the Biden administration makes a decision, but they are frustrated because the US just wants to suppress this until after the 2024 election. . The primary concern here is the re-election of the president.”