‘Starting to be a problem’: Biden scrambles to stop Iran’s ‘increasingly dangerous’ nuclear program

Top Biden administration officials warned Sunday that Iran’s nuclear program is “starting to be a problem” and that the U.S. and its allies have limited time to strike a deal with Tehran before it stockpiles enough material for a nuclear bomb.

Speaking Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the administration is hopeful that all sides can come back into compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a pact that limited Iran’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. President Biden confirmed Saturday that talks with Iran, which have been on hold since Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi came to power in June, will soon resume.

Officials acknowledge they have little time to spare. Mr. Blinken’s stark warning underscores the high stakes facing the West as the theocratic regime in Tehran disregards warnings from Washington and races toward status as a nuclear power. 

An Iran equipped with nuclear bombs would be a national security and foreign policy nightmare for the U.S. and its long-standing regional ally Israel. Such a development also would reshape the balance of power in the Middle East and immediately make Iran the region’s most influential player.

Against that grim backdrop, Mr. Blinken said the U.S. and its allies are considering options, presumably including military action, if diplomacy is unsuccessful and Iran’s nuclear program reaches a more dangerous phase.

“We still believe diplomacy is the best path forward for putting the nuclear program back in the box that had been in under the agreement, the so-called JCPOA. But we were also looking at, as necessary, other options if Iran is not prepared to engage quickly in good faith, to pick up where we left off in June,” Mr. Blinken said.

“Every option is on the table, but here’s what’s important: Iran, unfortunately, is moving forward aggressively with its program. The time it would take for it to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon is getting shorter and shorter,” he said. “The other thing that’s getting shorter is the runway we have, where, if we do get back into compliance with the agreement, and Iran gets back into compliance, we actually recapture all of the benefits of the agreement. Iran is learning enough, doing enough, so that that’s starting to be a problem.”

President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA in 2018. He said the deal didn’t do enough to stop Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts.

Mr. Trump and fellow Republicans also have maintained that any agreement with Iran must address other behavior, such as Tehran’s continued support of terrorism. The regime is financially backing groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Iran also supports militias that regularly target American troops stationed in Iraq and Syria. Republicans say the Biden administration has not done enough to hold Iran to account for those attacks.

During a speech in Washington last week, former Vice President Mike Pence argued that Mr. Biden has emboldened Iran and its leaders.

“Our greatest hope must always be for a peaceful, cooperative and harmonious coexistence with Iran and all the sovereign nations of the region and the world. The United States will always be ready to embrace peace with all who seek it. But peace follows strength,” Mr. Pence said at the event Thursday. The event was organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a leading dissident group that has long called for regime change in Iran.

He also hit the White House for its response to a massive rocket bombardment against Israel this year by Hamas, a terrorist group that receives financing from Tehran.

“And with our current administration’s embrace with the JCPOA, their hesitation to condemn rockets being fired at our cherished ally Israel, the heartbreaking and disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, our adversaries may be sensing weakness in the current American administration,” the former vice president said. “They may be emboldened to test our resolve. And, in fact, they’ve already begun to do so with reports of an Iranian drone attack on a U.S. base in Syria.

“Weakness arouses evil,” Mr. Pence said.

The administration has taken action to push back on those attacks. 

The White House last week imposed economic sanctions on two entities and four individuals connected to drone attacks by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including attacks against U.S. forces.

It’s unclear whether the administration is prepared to make that issue part of new talks with Iran or whether the White House will continue its policy of keeping nuclear negotiations separate from other matters.

Meanwhile, Mr. Blinken stressed that the other signatories of the JCPOA — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — are united in the effort to revive the agreement and reimpose limits of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Multilateral talks are expected to resume soon in Vienna, though an exact date has not been set.

The earlier round of talks ended in June when Mr. Raisi, a noted hard-liner, took office.

In a joint statement over the weekend, the U.S., Britain, France and Germany told Mr. Raisi that his country still has a window of opportunity.

“We call upon President Raisi to seize this opportunity and return to a good faith effort to conclude our negotiations as a matter of urgency,” the leaders of those four countries said in their communique. “That is the only sure way to avoid a dangerous escalation, which is not in any country’s interest.”

Iranian officials have confirmed that talks are set to resume, but they blasted the most recent round of U.S. sanctions and suggested that those sanctions will make talks with the Biden administration more difficult.

“Such U.S. measures are in continuation of the Trump administration’s failed ‘maximum pressure’ policy and the country’s unlawful and cruel sanctions,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Friday. “These pressures and sanctions will fail to undermine the Islamic Republic of Iran’s determination to defend [its] security and peace of the noble Iranian people. Tehran will continue the path of sustainable economic development with strength.”

• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters