US officials step back after pushing for tougher stance

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US officials step back after pushing for tougher stance

Two US officials involved in negotiations over renewing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal have stepped back from the talks and a third has left the team altogether amid internal discord over how firm the White House should be with Tehran, according to a report.

Richard Nephew, the State Department’s deputy special envoy for Iran who pushed for a tougher approach, has not been part of the talks in Vienna since early December, Wall Street Journal reported Monday. A State Department spokesman told Reuters late Monday that Nephew was no longer in the envoy role, though he was still at the department.

Two other unidentified team members have stepped back from the dialogue because they also sought a tougher stance toward Iran, according to the Journal. 

At issue were the enforcement of existing sanctions and whether to break off negotiations as Iran continues to advance its nuclear program, the report said, citing people familiar with the talks. 

Uranium conversion facility.
US and European officials warn that Iran could have enough nuclear material for a bomb within the next few weeks.
Getty Images

The upheaval in the team comes as US and European officials warn that time is running out to rescue the agreement because Iran could be able to produce enough nuclear fuel for a bomb in the next few weeks. 

Under the agreement brokered by the Obama administration, the US would lift most sanctions in exchange for placing strict restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program.

Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, and the Biden administration is working to restore it.

Without a deadline for ending the talks, some Western diplomats doubt whether the Biden administration is prepared to give up its efforts, no matter how remote the chances of reaching a new deal. With Tehran accelerating its nuclear enrichment program, pulling out of the talks could prompt another crisis for the White House at a time of heightened tensions with Russia over Ukraine.

According to the Journal, friction among the team has been spreading since last summer over a number of issues that were debated and decided at the highest levels of the Biden administration.

The disagreements include whether to get the United Nations atomic watchdog to censure Tehran for preventing inspectors from monitoring its nuclear program and refusing to cooperate with a separate probe into nuclear material found in Iran. 

The team also clashed over how vigorously to enforce sanctions on Iran, especially over China importing Iranian oil, as well as the question of when it would become impossible to keep Iran 12 months away from having enough nuclear fuel for an atomic weapon — a key point in the 2015 deal.

Iran Nuclear Talks
Two other members of the US team who advocated a tougher approach towards Iran have stepped back from the talks.
Photothek via Getty Images

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