Iran’s nuclear progress called ‘sobering’ by US senators as talks resume

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US senators from both parties emerged from a closed-door briefing saying they were stunned about the progress Iran is making with its nuclear program even as talks continue in Vienna to revive a 2015 agreement that would restore limits on those efforts.

The chief US negotiator to the Iran talks, Robert Malley, was joined by Brett McGurk, the Middle East coordinator at the National Security Council and an intelligence official for the Capitol Hill briefing on Wednesday. A key issue was the “breakout time it would take Iran to ramp up uranium enrichment and produce a nuclear weapon.

“That was a sobering and shocking briefing about where we are right now,” said Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat. “The information we got on breakout time is something we all have to really think about.”

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US lawmakers have long been skeptical about talks with Iran, and members from both parties were critical of the 2015 nuclear deal reached between Tehran and world powers to ease sanctions in exchange for restrictions on the nuclear program. Despite that, most Democrats and some Republicans criticized the Trump administration for pulling out of the accord in 2018, saying it would undermine efforts to restrain Iran’s nuclear program.

Wednesday’s briefing “crystallized for members where we’re at, the challenges ahead and what are the potential options, said Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and an opponent of the original nuclear deal. “You look at the public reporting, they’re talking about weeks away. So that is a very sobering, challenging reality.”

The briefing came after the resumption of talks meant to resuscitate the 2015 accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

After months of sporadic talks in Vienna, it’s still not clear how closer the different sides are to a final agreement. The US has said for months that time is running out, while repeatedly dialed back optimism expressed by Iranian and European diplomats about the status of talks. American officals have reiterated that some key demands from Tehran -- such as a guarantee that a future US administration wouldn’t pull out of the accord again -- are unworkable.

But as Iran has continued to enrich uranium beyond levels it agreed to under the deal, along with progressing on other technical measures, the pressure is rising quickly to re-enter the accord or consider alternatives, something the US has said is underway.

Murphy said any new agreement in Vienna “would largely be a re-entry to the JCPOA... but you’d have to make some modifications because of their work on advanced centrifuges. And you likely have to roll back some of the sanctions applied after we withdrew from the JCPOA.”

Other lawmakers were less optimistic.

“I’ve been skeptical about this from the beginning, said Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations panel. “We were promised by this administration while they were still celebrating with champagne and streamers and confetti that it was going to be longer and stronger. I think that probably even they would admit that that proposition is off the table.”

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