European Powers Won't Push Biden for Swift U.S. Return to Iranian Nuclear Deal

European Powers Won't Push Biden for Swift U.S. Return to Iranian Nuclear Deal

There is growing concern about Iran’s nuclear research, but European diplomats say they don’t want to rush new U.S. president to re-enter pact.

European powers are looking to the incoming Biden administration to swiftly reduce nuclear tensions with Tehran but won’t press Washington to re-enter the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran quickly, according to senior diplomats.

While European countries remain supportive of the 2015 nuclear deal, officials from France, Britain and Germany—countries that helped negotiate the accord—say a full return to the agreement might not be achievable or even desirable before Iran’s presidential elections in June.

Amid increasing European concerns about Iran’s nuclear research, the diplomats say they will urge a swift agreement in the first months of a Biden administration next spring to offer some easing of sweeping U.S. sanctions on Tehran in return for steps by Iran toward reversing its expanding nuclear activities. The hope would be to provide some tangible economic benefits to Iran before June’s vote, creating an incentive for a new Iranian government to pursue diplomacy.

For Iran, that would likely mean reducing its growing stockpile of nuclear material—enriched uranium—which is currently 12 times the limit permitted in the 2015 agreement. That is enough material, experts say, for two nuclear weapons if the low-enriched uranium is further refined to weapons-grade fuel.

More significantly, it would require a swift halt to some of Iran’s nuclear research, work that European officials fear could undermine the core of the 2015 agreement. Iran is expanding its work on advanced centrifuges, used to enrich uranium, and moving more of that work underground.

Iran in recent weeks has installed or partially set up hundreds of advanced centrifuges underground at its main nuclear facility of Natanz, in direct contravention of the accord, the United Nations atomic agency has reported.

The faster Iran can accrue enriched uranium, the less time it would need to tear up its nuclear restraints and push to produce a nuclear weapon. The work endangers the central principle of the 2015 agreement— that Tehran should be at least 12 months away from amassing enough nuclear material for a weapon.

Tehran says it has never sought to produce nuclear weapons.

Iran’s growing breaches of the 2015 deal, which placed strict but temporary restrictions on its nuclear activities in return for a suspension of most Western sanctions, followed the Trump administration’s May 2018 decision to pull the U.S. out of the deal and impose broad sanctions on Iran. Those measures have hit Iran’s economy badly.

The Biden team has kept its detailed Iran plans largely to itself so far, European diplomats say. However in September, Mr. Biden published an article saying he would return to the accord if Iran reversed all its nuclear breaches and the two sides agreed to build on the 2015 deal to expand its scope and tighten restraints on Iran’s future nuclear work.

The foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany met Monday in Berlin to discuss the nuclear deal.

While European diplomats believe it is possible to reach an interim arrangement in the spring, they are doubtful that Iran will agree to a future broadening of the accord before the presidential elections. Western diplomats believe June’s vote will lead to a harder-line president replacing Hassan Rouhani, who championed the nuclear accord.

Even as the 2015 deal remains the reference point for talks, most diplomats also believe a hurried U.S. return to the nuclear deal could squander Western leverage to persuade Tehran—and their Russian and Chinese allies in the agreement—to accept a broader, tighter deal in future.

With Iran’s economy under great strain from sanctions and its regional position weakened by Israel’s recent establishment of diplomatic ties with several Gulf countries, some European officials believe Washington has time on its side. Among the changes Western officials have discussed are an extension of the sunsets on Iran’s core nuclear activities, Iranian commitments to limit its ballistic missile program and curtailing its regional interference.

Even in Brussels, where former officials have in recent days called on the incoming Biden administration to return in full to the nuclear deal, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has acknowledged the 2015 deal might need changes.

“I am not against the idea that the deal can be reshaped, enlarged, reconsidered, whatever you want,” he said in an interview over the summer. “But you cannot throw the deal out of a window then start from zero.”

Iranian officials have sent mixed signals about further diplomacy recently but they have repeatedly said they are open to a U.S. return to the accord. Yet far from accepting any new demands from Washington, Tehran is demanding compensation for the U.S. decision to quit the deal and impose sanctions. European diplomats say that privately, Tehran is more conciliatory on this point.

Iranian officials have also repeatedly said they are willing to reverse their nuclear steps if U.S. sanctions are dropped. But European diplomats note that Iran’s increasingly advanced centrifuge research can’t be unwound.

In a statement last week at a meeting of the UN atomic agency board, France, Britain and Germany urged Tehran to stop advancing its nuclear research work.

“We continue to be extremely concerned by Iran’s actions, which are hollowing out the core non-proliferation benefits of the deal,” they said. “Advancements on Research & Development have irreversible consequences.”

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