To get a deal, Iran will have to either accelerate its pace at the negotiating table or slow down the pace of its nuclear program to buy more time for diplomacy, a senior U.S. official involved in the Vienna nuclear talks tells Axios.
Why it matters: Biden administration officials have set the end of January or beginning of February as an unofficial deadline for the talks, in large part because they believe Iran's nuclear advances will soon render the 2015 deal ineffective.
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The U.S. official said there had been some progress recently in the nuclear talks but that it had been "painfully slow and painfully small," with the core issues still unresolved.
The talks aimed at salvaging the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are being held between Iran, China, Russia, France, Germany, the U.K. and EU, with the U.S. participating indirectly.
A European diplomat briefed on the talks said gaps still remain on the steps the Iranians need to take to limit their nuclear program, on the scope of sanctions relief to be provided to Iran, and on the guarantees Iran is demanding that no future U.S. administration will pull out and reimpose sanctions.
What they're saying: "We are the closest we have ever been to a deal but also the closest we have ever been to a breakdown of the talks," the U.S. official said.
"We are prepared and willing to reach a deal soon. But we are also prepared and bracing for the possibility of a breakdown which would spell the JCPOA's likely demise," the U.S. official said.
What's next: The talks in Vienna will continue for at least another few weeks, but the U.S. official said they can't go on as they are now much longer.
The U.S. and the other parties to the deal have made clear to Iran that if it needs more time for diplomacy it will have to slow the nuclear program to keep time on the clock, the official said.
At the moment, all efforts are concentrated on returning to the 2015 nuclear deal and not on getting some kind of an interim agreement, the U.S. official said. Iran also says it doesn't want an interim deal.
The Iranians continue to say they're negotiating in good faith for an agreement, but also to insist on guarantees that the deal will last and they'll get the economic benefits they expect. It's unclear exactly how such guarantees would work.