The Biden administration is prepared to take action against Iran while pursuing indirect talks in Vienna over a mutual return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, a senior State Department official said Saturday.
"Iran is at the table and developing its nuclear program. We could be at the table and using other tools to make sure that we are advancing our own objectives," the official said in a call with reporters on Saturday.
"I wouldn't focus so much on is there going to be a dramatic exit from Vienna. ... I'm not excluding it. But at this point, we want to negotiate with Iran. We want to see whether we can reach an understanding. But it doesn't mean that because we're at the table that we can't do other things at the same time."
The comments followed the conclusion of a seventh round of indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran, with European intermediaries shuttling between the two teams to bring both Washington and Tehran back to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The tough assertions from the U.S. also come ahead of a meeting between American and Israeli officials in Washington next week, with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz reportedly expected to meet with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Israel is opposed to a revival of the JCPOA, and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett held a call with Blinken on Friday calling for "an immediate cessation of negotiations."
The U.S. and other participants in the talks have expressed disappointment with Iran's position. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday said, "Iran right now does not seem to be serious about doing what's necessary to return to compliance."
The indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran had stalled for close to six months amid Tehran's transition to the administration of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative hard-liner who was elected in August and is under American sanctions for human rights abuses.
The Biden administration has said its primary objective is to return to the JCPOA, but President Biden has said "other options" are available to the U.S. - which are believed to include a kinetic, military option in addition to economic measures - if a return to the nuclear deal falls flat.
The senior official said the Iranians were "getting ready" to come back to the table by increasing their nuclear activity, antagonizing international nuclear inspectors and proposing demands out of proportion since a sixth round of talks in June.
"What getting ready meant was to come with proposals that walked back anything, any of the compromises that Iran floated during the six rounds of talks, pocket all of the compromises that others and the U.S., in particular, had made, and then ask for more," the official said. "In other words, not come back with a serious proposal about how we could resume mutual compliance with the JCPOA."
The Biden administration maintains it is focused on finding a mutual path of compliance with Iran to return to the JCPOA since former President Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018. Tehran violated the terms of the deal in 2019 in opposition to the "maximum pressure" campaign of sanctions imposed by the previous administration.
Iran has publicly called for the U.S. to lift all of the estimated 1,500 sanctions imposed by Trump and provide assurances that a new president cannot withdraw from the deal.
The U.S. has said it is prepared to lift sanctions that are "inconsistent" with the terms of the JCPOA and criticized the Iranian stance as not serious, pointing to its nuclear provocations over the past few months, which include enriching uranium to capacities approaching weapons-grade levels, carrying out these activities at facilities banned by the terms of the JCPOA, and blocking or intimidating nuclear inspectors with the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency.
The senior official said Iran's actions, likely aimed at trying to assert leverage for the Vienna talks, are isolating the country from participants of the deal, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union.
"I think we're seeing very clearly that countries around the world are now more and more aware of the fact that Iran is taking a position which is inconsistent with their stated goals of a return to the JCPOA, and their accelerated nuclear program is Exhibit A in that," the official said.
Still, the U.S. is committed to keeping diplomatic channels open and is putting the onus on Iran to engage seriously to revive the JCPOA and cease provocative actions.
"The time that the JCPOA has for still remaining a viable deal is inversely proportional to the speed with which Iran advances its nuclear program," the official said. "If they choose to accelerate the nuclear program, as they seem to have done of late, then there'd be less time left for the JCPOA to be resurrected."