Iran Nuclear Talks Falter as Biden Administration Squanders Window for Diplomacy

After President Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015, the United States continues to negotiate with Iran about its nuclear program. With a new Iranian administration after April’s controversial election, many worry that if talks fail, tensions between the two countries could turn into military escalation fueled by pressure from Israel. “The new hard-line team has been coming in to the negotiation table with more demands than the previous administration,” says Iranian American journalist Negar Mortazavi. “They want sanctions relief from the U.S. in exchange for them scaling back part of their nuclear program.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Antony Blinken, Secretary-of-State, stated Tuesday that the Biden Administration is preparing alternative plans in case the U.S. falls short in its efforts in reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear accord that Trump withdrew from. After a five month break in efforts to revise and update the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), indirect negotiations between the United States of America and Iran are currently underway in Vienna. On Tuesday, the chief of Iran’s civilian program insisted Iran will refuse to allow U.N. inspectors to access a sensitive centrifuge assembly plant. Last week, CIA Director William Burns said he’s concerned about Iran’s nuclear program during an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

WILLIAM BURNS: Based on the results from the new round of nuclear talks, you know that the Iranians don’t take the negotiations seriously at the moment. It was a disconcerting result. It is now clear that the Iranians are not only dragging their feet on nuclear negotiations but, as Jerry pointed out, they are also making steady progress in their nuclear program, including enrichment to 60 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: Israeli officials have been asking the United States to take military action towards Iran in recent days. They suggested that the U.S. strike Iran directly or attack an Iranian base located in Yemen. Israel insists that it will attack Iran regardless of the outcome to the nuclear talks in Vienna.

Well, for more we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Negar Mortazavi, Iranian American journalist, political analyst, host of Podcast Iran.

Negar, thank you so much for being here.

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: It is great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk about the significance of what’s happening in Vienna right now? What are these so-called alternatives?

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: Sure, Amy. Your audience may be aware that there are ongoing negotiations on nuclear weapons in Vienna. It’s been the site of this gathering of not just Iran and the United States, but really the world powers, all of the other parties to the nuclear deal. Sometimes we forget that the nuclear agreement was not only between Iran and the United States. There were also other parties involved: Russia, China and European powers.

The seventh round of negotiations — can you hear me?

AMY GOODMAN: We hear you fine.

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: OK, great. The seventh round of negotiations is — which has happened, is essentially the first round of negotiations with Iran’s new administration. In June, Iran’s presidency was changed. The new hard-line team has been bringing more demands to the table than the previous administration.

And this really goes back to what myself and some other Iran watchers had been warning, that President Biden, when he first started his administration, had a window of opportunity, really a golden window of opportunity, with Iran’s previous administration, a moderate administration, who was involved in the negotiations initially and the making of the JCPOATo go back to the JCPOA These negotiations were possible while the moderates were still at power in Tehran. The window was closed on June. Iran held a presidential election. Now, a new team is in. They began in August. And they obviously — they are the hard-liners in Iran’s political faction. They’ve always been very skeptical of the West, of the U.S., of the nuclear negotiations, of the JCPOA. They were vocal critics JCPOA. So, this team is going to do things differently, and I think that’s what the Biden administration is also starting to realize, that things are going to be more complicated and difficult with the hard-liners in Iran.

I don’t think we’re at the end of the road yet or at a point of no return. Even with the hard-line team I believe that Iran still wants a nuclear agreement, either this nuclear deal or a partnership with the United States. They want the U.S. to lift sanctions in return for their scaling back of their nuclear program. But I believe the negotiations ahead will be difficult. And if they fail, if diplomacy fails, then the absence of diplomacy means more escalation, potentially in the form of sabotage attacks and military escalations, which won’t just be bound to Iran. It will spread to the entire region and can easily get out.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Negar, can we talk about the role played by Israel as a nation that isn’t a party to the negotiation but has great influence? Israel’s defense minister and Mossad chief are in Washington this week meeting with senior members of the Biden administration. And, of course, Israel has been involved in repeated attempts at assassinations, or actual assassinations, of scientists in the nuclear program in Iran, as well as sabotage of Iran’s nuclear energy program. From what you can see, what is Israel doing with the Biden administration?

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: That’s a great question. You know, actually, Iran’s nuclear program, it’s not a nuclear weapons program to this point. But if Iran — the reason Iran is seen as a threat is because it can be a potential threat to U.S. allies in the region. Iran is not a threat on U.S. soil. As you stated, Israel and other U.S. allies in the region are key to all these types of perceptions and also the negotiations and U.S. posturing towards Iran.

We know that Bibi Netanyahu was the previous Israeli government and was very opposed to the JCPOA. He fought against the negotiations and the deal when President Obama was doing diplomacy with Iran, but he didn’t succeed. He succeeded in pushing President Trump to withdraw from the deal later. JCPOA. And now, interestingly, we’re hearing from former Israeli officials, some from Bibi Netanyahu’s own previous government, that this was actually a mistake, that Israel opposing the JCPOA The deal was ultimately rejected by President Trump, which was a mistake. It was a good deal, as Iran had agreed to limit its nuclear program. And now that those limits are gone and Iran is expanding the program, it’s really escalating the situation. There’s no better deal to replace it.

As Amy and you both mentioned, there are talks between Israeli officials trying to get the United States to take military action against Iran. I’m not sure how much of an appetite there is in the White House for that form of direct military attack on Iran by the United States, and I’m not so confident that Israel, on its own, would carry out an attack like that without U.S. greenlight. It is possible for the situation to change at any time. You can get into a conflict by stumbling in it, and it can escalate quickly and become out of control in the volatile region that is Middle East. But so far I’m not sure if the Israelis have succeeded in sort of convincing the United States, because this is something they’ve always wanted, as well as the U.S. partners in the Persian Gulf, Arab countries in the Persian Gulf, to not themselves take military action against Iran but sort of push the United States to do it for them, and they haven’t succeeded under President Obama, President Trump. And so far I haven’t seen that really succeeding with the Biden administration. I think they’re still trying to give diplomacy a chance, although I think the U.S. side has to make more serious compromises to meet Iran halfway.

AMY GOODMAN: We are grateful to Negar Mortazavi, Iranian American journalist and political analysis, for being here. She is the host of Podcast Iran. And, of course, we’ll continue to cover this issue.

After lunch, we travel to Chile to vote for a new president. The race is tight between a far-right candidate, and a former student leader. Stay with me.