By Kylie Atwood, CNN
The Biden administration believes it has until the end of February to salvage the Iran nuclear agreement, otherwise the US will have to change tack and launch aggressive efforts to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, according to three administration officials.
“This session is the critical one,” a senior administration official said, referring to high level talks that have resumed in Vienna. “We are genuinely in the very final stretch.”
“Nothing with Iran is ever a straight line, but we are getting to a decisive moment,” said a second administration official.
The agreement, which was abandoned by the Trump administration in 2018, puts verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program which were designed to prevent the country from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Iran has increasingly broken away from its commitments under the agreement and many believe it would be able to quickly develop nuclear weapons and pose a serious threat to security and stability in the Middle East if there isn’t a breakthrough in Vienna.
A failure to salvage the agreement would be a major blow to President Joe Biden, who had campaigned to save it, and would come as his foreign policy decisions are under increasing scrutiny following a deeply flawed withdrawal from Afghanistan and as his administration’s efforts to deter a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine continue.
US officials believe that if Iran continues developing its nuclear program at the same pace it would have enough weapons-grade material to fuel a nuclear weapon sometime in the coming weeks, which has fueled the February deadline.
CIA Director Bill Burns said late last year that there is no current evidence that Iran has decided to weaponize its nuclear program at this point.
Iran has said in recent years that it has no intention of creating nuclear weapons, but last year Iran’s intelligence minister appeared to open the door to the possibility when saying that the country would have to pursue nuclear arms if there was no US sanctions relief.
Biden administration officials have participated in indirect talks with Iranian officials for about 10 months, while Iran has continued to advance its nuclear program.
The talks in Vienna resumed this week after the US left the last round — which lasted about a month — saying that progress had been made. But the officials also said that Iran needed to make political decisions if an agreement was to be reached.
“We made progress narrowing down the list of differences to just the key priorities on all sides. And that’s why now is the time for political decisions,” they said.
Recently, US Secretary of State Tony Blinken has made clear time is running out and stressed there are only weeks left to rescue the deal.
US special envoy to Iran Rob Malley, who is in Vienna this week for the talks, will brief members of Congress in a classified setting on Wednesday. Earlier this week, Malley spoke with congressional staffers and left them feeling that the next few weeks will determine if the deal lasts or dies, two congressional sources told CNN.
Administration bracing for congressional opposition
The administration is bracing for opposition from Democrats and Republicans once a decision is made about the pathway forward. There is widespread concern among lawmakers about what any kind of deal with Iran may look like, and why there is any reason to salvage the deal if its benefits will expire in the coming years. The administration initially promised to pursue a longer and stronger deal with Iran but the details of what that would look like remain unclear as salvaging the deal in place remains the immediate focus.
“I have been cautiously optimistic about the Biden administration’s initial efforts,” said Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, last week. “However, a year later, I have yet to hear any parameters of ‘longer’ or ‘stronger’ terms or whether that is even a feasible prospect.”
Meanwhile, Republicans are threatening to make efforts to block any deal if it does not go through Congress for approval.
Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee did not seem optimistic about the prospects of rejoining the deal after receiving a classified briefing from Biden administration officials on Wednesday.
Menendez said it’s still “possible” for the US to come to an agreement with Iran, but “it’s increasingly difficult, cause the window is closing, closing rapidly.”
“That was a sobering and shocking briefing about where we are right now,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut. “I think the information we got on breakout time is something we all really have to think about. It is extraordinary how Iran’s nuclear program has advanced since leaving the JCPAO. … I see no way to stop Iran’s progress other than re-entering this deal.”
“It’s not that they can’t be close” to a deal, he added, “but every day it goes by and they’re not, it’s not great, their chances of success.”
Murphy was shocked at the level of development Iran has reached and said while public reporting suggests Iran is “eight weeks away from a nuclear weapon, once they make a decision to get it, that time is getting smaller not bigger.”
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said the administration seems “desperate” for a deal after attending the briefing.
“I think the Biden administration is so desperate for a deal, they will concede and agree to anything,” Cruz said.
Biden and his national security team are willing to take the heat from both sides of the aisle if they salvage the deal because they view it as better than the alternative where they’d have to rein in Iran and control its nuclear program, an approach that has not proved successful since the US left the agreement, a senior administration official said.
“Getting back into the deal is the best way to build on it,” the official said.
The Biden administration has said that if the deal falls apart Iran will face a full-throated response from the US and its allies that includes increased economic and diplomatic pressure.
If Iran does not come back into compliance with the deal, the US will “pursue a different path in dealing with the danger posed by Iran’s renewed nuclear program, a program that had been put in a box by the agreement that we had reached in the past, the JCPOA, and that unfortunately has now escaped from that box as a result of us pulling out of the agreement and Iran restarting its dangerous program,” Blinken said last month.
But still, their desire is to save the deal that was agreed during the Obama administration.
Last week the Biden administration restored a sanctions waiver that will allow countries to cooperate with Iran on civil nuclear projects, two senior US officials said Friday, a move that comes at a critical moment even though State Department officials said it was not a concession to Iran.
But in a move likely to increase tensions, Iran’s elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), unveiled a new long-range missile on Wednesday with a target range of 1,450 kilometers, Iran state-news outlet IRNA said.
IRGC chief of staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri said in a speech on state TV that the missiles are handy “in the conditions of today’s wars,” and that it will be used to “accurately hit enemy targets.”
On recent trips to Washington, US allies have stressed that the next few weeks are make or break for the deal, given Iran’s continued advances to its nuclear program which are outside the bounds of the deal.
“This is now the time for Iran to make a decision. There’s no time for prolonging,” said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Monday. “Because we look at the situation in Iran and we see that they are making progress with that capacity building of having a nuclear bomb and being able to use them on missiles and because of that it’s clear that we will not wait.”
British officials have echoed the German sentiments.
“The timelines we’re looking at now so are constrained that I think Iran needs to realize — this is this is now the time to complete this. And that dragging on is not really a credible option,” British government minister James Cleverly told reporters in Washington this week, after discussing the talks with State Department officials.
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CNN’s Ellie Kaufman, Lauren Fox and Celine Alkhaldi contributed reporting.