A subtle shift in official U.S. statements suggests Washington believes reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is better than the alternatives despite the advances in Iran's nuclear program, diplomatic and other sources said.
For months, the Biden administration argued there would soon come a point where the non-proliferation benefits of a revived deal - its ability to limit Iran's headway toward a nuclear bomb - would be outweighed by the progress of Iran's atomic program.
"You can't revive a dead corpse," Rob Malley, the lead U.S. negotiator, said on Oct. 25.
Under the agreement called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and struck by Iran and six major powers, Tehran limited its nuclear program to make it harder for it to get a bomb in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.
Tehran has long said its program is for peaceful purposes.
Then-U.S. President Donald Trump reneged on the accord in 2018 and reimposed harsh U.S. sanctions, prompting Iran to begin violating the nuclear limits a year later. U.S. President Joe Biden has tried to revive the pact through indirect talks in Vienna, so far without success.
On Feb. 28, two weeks before the talks unraveled, State Department spokesman Ned Price said: "We will need to have additional clarity in the coming days given that we are at this decisive ... moment, knowing that Tehran's nuclear advancements will soon render the non-proliferation benefits that the JCPOA conveyed essentially meaningless."
Others have used various analogies to describe the urgency, saying the runway was limited, the clock ticking and the window closing.
However, Price and other U.S. officials have since put less emphasis on time running out and more on their only reviving the deal if it were in the U.S. national security interest.
"We're going to test the proposition of a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA for as long as doing so remains in our interests," Price said on April 26. "As long as the non-proliferation benefits that a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA brings is better than what we have now, that will likely be an outcome that's in our interest."
The phrase about reviving the deal only if it was in the U.S. national interest has been used before, including by Price on Jan. 4, but its renewed emphasis and the diminished stress on time dwindling is a shift.
"That's a profound rewriting of the non-proliferation standard," said one source familiar with the matter.
"What he is basically saying is that it's not (a question of) whether or not it is providing us benefits equal to the previous JCPOA experience. It's just saying that it's better than today. And 'better than today' is a looser standard."
Dennis Ross, a former U.S. diplomat who handled Iran policy for the Obama White House for two years, concurred.
"The formulation is now 'it's still in our national security interest to have this' given the alternatives," Ross said.
"This is an agreement where the breakout time will not be what it once was, because of the advances in the program, but this is still better than the alternatives available to us," he said. "That's the essence of where they are."
Breakout time is how long it would take Iran to acquire the fissile material for one bomb if it decided to. The accord stretched this to about a year but it is now down to weeks, U.S. officials say.
The State Department has not provided a response addressing Reuters questions.
Despite talk of "Plan B" options to address Iran's nuclear program if the deal cannot be revived, there are few good ones.
Ross said alternatives include intensified economic pressure on Iran as well as U.S. or Israeli military action to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities. None appeals to Washington, so it is still trying to revive the deal.
"Plan B is basically what plan A was," Ross said.
Ross argued Washington now believes restoring some of the deal's limits, such as its 3.67% cap on the purity to which Iran can enrich uranium and the a 202.8-kg limit on its enriched uranium stock, was better than the alternative.
According to a March 3 International Atomic Energy Agency report, Iran was enriching uranium to 60% purity and its stock of enriched uranium stood at 3.2 tonnes.
Talks broke down in March largely because of Tehran's demand Washington remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from a U.S. terrorism list and the U.S. refusal to do so, arguing that this was outside the scope of reviving the deal.
The European Union's foreign policy chief on May 13 said he believed EU envoy, Enrique Mora, who coordinates the talks, made enough progress on a visit to Tehran that week to restart discussions.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said the visit was a chance to explore settling the remaining issues. "A good and reliable agreement is within reach if the United States makes a political decision and adheres to its commitments," he said.
After Mora's visit a European diplomatic source said neither side had committed to resume talks and finding a compromise on the IRGC remained improbable, if not impossible.
"The Americans were very vocal two months ago saying time is running out and we have to get a deal," said this source. "But since March ... they don't seem to be in a hurry anymore."
A Western diplomatic source said whether reviving the deal was worthwhile was ultimately a political decision.
"This is a political judgment," this source said. "The deal has already lost its core benefits, but you can always argue that there are some things that make it more beneficial than nothing."
(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed in Saint Paul, Minn. and by John Irish in Paris; Additional reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna and by Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)