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Iran Nuclear Talks Falter as Biden Admin Threatens “Alternatives” After Squandering Window for Diplomacy

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The United States is continuing talks with Iran over its nuclear program after President Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015. 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.”

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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.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday the Biden administration is preparing alternatives in case the U.S. fails in its efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Trump withdrew the U.S. from. Indirect negotiations between the United States and Iran are underway in Vienna after a five-month break in efforts to revise the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. 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 of the new round of nuclear negotiations, you know, with the so-called P5+1, the international partners and the Iranians, you know, the Iranians are not taking the negotiations seriously at this point. It was a pretty discouraging result then. You have the reality of, you know, the Iranians essentially dragging their feet on the nuclear negotiations, and at the same time, as you pointed out, Jerry, making steady advances in their nuclear program, particularly enrichment to 60% now, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: In recent days, Israeli officials have been urging the United States to take military action against Iran, suggesting the U.S. should either directly strike Iran or attack an Iranian base in Yemen. Israel insists that regardless of the outcome of the nuclear talks in Vienna, it reserves the right to attack Iran.

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

Thanks so much for joining us, Negar.

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: Great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk about the significance of what’s happening in Vienna right now? And what are these so-called alternatives to the Iran nuclear deal that Trump pulled the U.S. out of?

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: Sure, Amy. So, as your audience may know, there are nuclear negotiations ongoing 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 tend to forget that the nuclear deal was not just between Iran and the United States. There were other parties involved: European powers, Russia and China.

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. There has been a change of presidency in Iran in June. And the new hard-line team has been coming in to the negotiating table with more demands 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 JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal agreement, to go back to the JCPOA and do these negotiations while the moderates were still in power in Tehran. That window closed in June. Iran had a presidential election. Now a new team is in. They started 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 of the 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. I still think, even with the hard-line team, that Iran wants a nuclear deal, wants this nuclear deal or a deal with the United States. They want sanctions relief from the U.S. in exchange for them scaling back part of their nuclear program. But I think the negotiations ahead are going to 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 be spread across the region and can easily get out of hand.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Negar, can you talk about the role of one nation that is not a party to the negotiations but has major influence, Israel? 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. What is Israel trying to do with the Biden administration right now, from what you can tell?

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 to U.S. soil. So, as you were saying, Israel and other U.S. partners in the region are very key elements in all of these sort of perceptions of threat and also the negotiations and U.S. sort of posturing towards Iran.

We know that the previous Israeli government, Bibi Netanyahu, was very much 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. Then, later, he succeeded in really pushing President Trump to pull out of the 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 and eventually pushing President Trump to pull out of the deal was a mistake. That was a good deal because Iran had essentially agreed to put limit on 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.

And as you mentioned, and Amy, there are talks of Israeli officials now really trying to push the United States to take military action against Iran or potentially target Iranian nuclear sites or Iranian interests across the region. 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. Now, the situation can always change. And I said you can stumble into a conflict, and it can escalate and get out of hand in this volatile region that is the 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 want to thank you, Negar Mortazavi, for joining us, Iranian American journalist, political analyst. She is host of The Iran Podcast. And, of course, we’ll continue to cover this issue.

After break, we go to Chile, where voters are headed to the polls Sunday to choose a new president in a tight runoff between a far-right candidate and a leftist former student leader. Stay with us.

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