US-Iran nuclear negotiations in Doha end without breakthrough

Indirect talks between Iran and the US have ended in Doha with no sign of a breakthrough in efforts to revive a 2015 nuclear deal, raising the risk of a potential confrontation with Tehran in the coming months.

“Unfortunately, not yet the progress the EU team as coordinator had hoped-for. We will keep working with even greater urgency to bring back on track a key deal for non-proliferation and regional stability, ” tweeted European Union envoy Enrique Mora, calling the discussions “intense.”

Mora served as the intermediary in the Qatari capital between Iranian chief negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani and President Joe Biden’s special envoy Rob Malley, passing messages back and forth between the two sides. Iran has refused to hold direct talks with the US team.

The 2015 nuclear dealknown as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was designed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Former President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the JCPOA in 2018, and the Biden administration has been trying to revive it.

But with the prospects for salvaging the agreement looking increasingly bleak, the Biden administration is coming under growing pressure in Washington and from the Middle Eastern allies to consider other options to counter Iran’s nuclear program, former officials, congressional aides and analysts said.

At the request of senators two weeks ago, the Biden administration provided a closed-door classified briefing on Iran, laying out possible “Plan B” options if diplomacy fails to rescue the 2015 nuclear deal, lawmakers said. Biden is due to visit Israel and Saudi Arabia next month and Iran’s nuclear program is expected to be at the top of the agenda.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanani said on Wednesday the talks in Doha were “held in a professional and serious atmosphere” and the plan from the outset was to hold two days of discussions.

The US State Department and Iran’s UN mission did not respond to a request for comment.

Neither side came to the Doha talks with any major new proposals and there was no sign Iran had eased its negotiating demands, including insisting that the US remove Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps from its terrorism blacklist, according to Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group think tank .

US negotiators previously have made it clear that they view the Revolutionary Guard sanctions as outside the parameters of the 2015 deal and that Iran would need to offer an equivalent concession in return.

Iran also continues to demand that the US offer guarantees that Washington will not pull out of the agreement again as Trump did. But US officials say there is no way to provide that assurance given that elections might produce a different policy under a new American president.

Negotiated under Barack Obama’s administration, the 2015 JCPOA imposed strict limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment work in return for an easing of economic sanctions. When Trump withdrew the US from the deal in 2018, he said it was too lax and failed to address Iran’s missile program or its support of proxies across the Middle East.

Since the US exit, Iran has steadily surpassed the deal’s restrictions on its uranium enrichment work, building up stockpiles, running advanced centrifuges and blocking full access to the UN atomic watchdog agency. Arms control experts say Iran now could quickly produce weapons-grade uranium without being detected by UN inspectors.

An Iranian news agency, Tasnim, earlier described the negotiations as having “no effect on breaking the deadlock in the talks.”

“What prevented these negotiations from coming to fruition is the US insistence on its proposed draft text in Vienna that excludes any guarantee for Iran’s economic benefits,” Tasnim reported, citing informed sources at the talks.

Last year, Secretary of State Secretary Antony Blinken said the US was “prepared to turn to other options” if nuclear negotiations fail. US officials have suggested the administration would be ready to tighten sanctions against Iran under that scenario.

European diplomats and former US officials have told NBC News that the US likely would introduce new sanctions against Iran and seek to more strictly enforce existing sanctions, with a particular focus on targeting Tehran’s oil sales to China. Potential sabotage operations against the nuclear program also could be on the table.

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