PARIS: The United States and France on Friday warned Iran that time was running out to return to a nuclear deal, voicing fear that Tehran’s sensitive atomic activities could advance if talks drag on.
On the first high-level visit to Paris by President Joe Biden’s administration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his French hosts saluted a new spirit of cooperation after four years of turbulence under Donald Trump.
But the two sides said that one key Biden promise — to return to the 2015 accord on the Iranian nuclear program that was trashed by Trump — was at risk if the clerical regime does not make concessions during talks that have been going on for months in Vienna.
Blinken warned that the United States still had “serious differences” with Iran, which has kept negotiating since last week’s presidential election won by hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi.
“There will come a point, yes, where it will be very hard to return back to the standards set by the JCPOA,” Blinken told reporters, using the formal name of the accord.
“We haven’t reached that point — I can’t put a date on it — but it’s something that we’re conscious of.”
Blinken warned that if Iran “continues to spin ever more sophisticated centrifuges” and steps up uranium enrichment, it will bring nearer the “breakout” time at which it will be dangerously close to the ability to develop a nuclear bomb.
But Blinken said that Biden still supported a return to the accord, under which Iran had drastically scaled back its nuclear work until Trump withdrew in 2018 and imposed crippling sanctions.
“We have a national interest in trying to put the nuclear problem back in the box that it was in the JCPOA,” Blinken said.
France — which like Britain, Germany, Russia and China had stayed in the 2015 accord despite pressure from Trump — also ramped up pressure on Iran to move ahead.
“We expect the Iranian authorities to take the final decisions — no doubt difficult ones — which will allow the negotiations to be concluded,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said at the joint news conference with Blinken.
Talks have stalled in part over Iran’s insistence on the lifting of all sanctions, pointing to the promises of economic relief under the accord.
The Biden administration says it is ready to lift economic measures related to nuclear work as laid out by the JCPOA — but that it will keep other sanctions, including over human rights and Iran’s support to militant movements in the Arab world.
Some experts believe that Iran had been waiting for the election of Raisi, whose hard-line approach is backed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate arbiter of the Islamic republic’s foreign policy.
Analysts have said Iran could strike a deal before Raisi takes office in August — letting him take the credit for the expected economic boost but blame outgoing president Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who championed a better relationship with the West, if the situation deteriorates.
Blinken, who was raised in Paris, saluted the alliance with France and sprinkled his remarks with fluent French, in a sharp change of tone after the sometimes abrasive “America First” approach of the Trump administration.
“My dear Tony, I’m really very happy to welcome you to Paris,” Le Drian said as he welcomed Blinken in an ornate room of the Quai d’Orsay, the French foreign ministry.
“It’s expected that you would visit Paris because you’re at home here. I would even be tempted to say, welcome home!“
Blinken is on a European tour that also took him to Germany and will continue in Italy, just after Biden visited the continent.
The administration is looking to solidify relations with Europeans in the face of growing challenges from a rising China and an assertive Russia.
On hotspots of strategic importance to the French, Blinken also promised solidarity on tackling extremism in the Sahel and a united front on troubled Lebanon.
“We have decided to act together to put pressure on those responsible. We know who they are,” Le Drian said of Lebanon which is engulfed in twin economic and political crises.
Blinken added: “We need to see real leadership in Beirut.”