US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (L) is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, December 2021 (GPO)

US officials say they will probably decide by the end of January whether to continue the Vienna talks on Iran’s nuclear program, or to impose “snapback” sanctions on Tehran for failure to comply with the 2015 agreement.

The International Crisis Group’s Ali Vaez, who is close to the US delegation in Vienna, said Washington will “judge if there is a light at end of the tunnel, to make sure that enough progress has been made that a deal could get made at some point in February or March”.

If the determination is negative, then the US and European powers in the deal — the UK, France, and Germany — will likely invoke the UN Security Council’s snapback sanctions. The provision would mean that all UN members, and not just Washington, would reinstitute sanctions over Iran’s return to enrichment of 20% uranium, launch of a 60% uranium program, and installation of advanced centrifuges.

Vaez’s comments echo reports of talks between US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Israeli officials on December 22. According to Axios, Sullivan said the snapback provisions will be used to deter any further Iranian nuclear advance, a tactic accepted by his Israeli counterparts.

Israel has told the US and European powers that Tehran is making technical preparation for enrichment of 90% uranium, which can be used in a military program. Israeli officials say that, besides the US, only the UK has shown willingness so far to reimpose sanctions.

While Sullivan discussed the snapback option, US officials told the Israelis that pressure must be balanced with diplomacy, as the Vienna talks resumed last week. The Americans also emphasized that Israeli operations, including sabotage of Iran’s nuclear facilities and assassination of its scientists, had only spurred Tehran to accelerate enrichment.

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While State Department spokesman Ned Price repeated on Tuesday that there was “some modest progress”, a “Western negotiator” expressed scepticism that there will be enough by the US deadline of January 31.

Vaez said the hope is that Iran has come back to Vienna with “a more pragmatic approach, especially if they prioritize some of their demands”. A “European negotiator” said, “It is absolutely feasible with enough goodwill.”

Having taken office in August, Iran’s Raisi Government only resumed talks in November, after a five-month break. It then set aside progress in the negotiations between April and June, presenting new texts over sanctions and technical issues. In public, Iranian officials have verged on making the lifting of US sanctions a precondition for further advances.

In a joint press conference with US Secretary of State in Washington, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Wednesday:

We are pulling in the same direction when it comes to Iran and the JCPOA [Joint Comprhensive Plan of Action].

The discussions and negotiations… are entering a crucial phase. Iran has squandered a lot of trust and there is not much time, but we intensively use this time together in Vienna.

In the aftermath of US National Security Advisor Sullivan’s visit, the head of Israeli military intelligence, Aharon Haliva, told the Security Cabinet that a return to the provisions of the 2015 nuclear deal is preferable to “total non-compliance with the agreement”.

If adopted, the position would be a marked shift from years of Israel’s “No Deal is Better Than a Bad Deal”. Haliva reported presented his assessment in a contrast to that of the head of the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, who continued to argue that Israel must insist on far tougher provisions in any agreement.