210128 Blinken
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Image Credit: AP

Abu Dhabi: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has reiterated his warning that Iran could be on course to get enough fissile material to build a nuclear weapon within months, adding that it could be “a matter of weeks”.

Speaking to NBC News, Blinken said the US would be willing to once again comply with the 2015 nuclear deal if Iran does the same, saying that the US would then work on a “longer and stronger” deal with allies which could include other issues, including Iran’s development of advanced missile technology and its deployment of armed groups throughout the Middle East.

On the other hand, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has called on the US administration to stop imposing conditions on Tehran, and to implement his country’s conditions for returning to the nuclear agreement.

Blinken avoided giving a clear answer when asked if the release of detained Americans in Iran would be a part of any future negotiations.

He said: “Irrespective of... any deal, those Americans need to be released... We’re going to focus on making sure that they come home one way or another.”

Before his confirmation as Secretary of State, Blinken said that under the Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it would take Iran over a year to produce enough fissile material to make one weapon. Blinken told lawmakers during his 19 January confirmation hearings that it would now take “about three or four months, based at least on public reporting.”

Iran began breaching the limits on the nuclear deal in 2019, a year after former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal and began imposing harsh sanctions on Tehran as part of a campaign of maximum pressure.

Iran has increased its production of fissile nuclear material, begun production of nuclear fuel enriched to 20 per cent purity, and ramped up its development of advanced centrifuges that can more efficiently process uranium ore for industrial or military purposes.

Iranian breaches of the deal, which all remain under the observation of the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, have alarmed western leaders. Iran says it will not pursue nuclear weapons and most western intelligence agencies say Iran abandoned a clandestine atomic arms programme in 2003. But many non-proliferation experts have concluded Tehran is seeking to build up its nuclear technology capabilities with an eye toward quickly assembling nuclear weapons if it decided to in the future.

The Biden administration says it will remove punishing sanctions on Tehran if Iran returns to full compliance with the JCPOA, but the sequencing of a restoration of the deal remains unclear. Both Blinken and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have said that they would return to compliance with the deal, but only if the other does so first.

Iran has been trying to achieve a return to the 2015 deal by publicly pressuring the new Biden administration. It has seized the cargo ship of a US ally and imprisoned a US citizen on charges of espionage, according to The Times.

In turn, the Iranian foreign minister told Jamaran News that the recent statements of the new US administration “do not mean anything,” adding: “If one of the parties is supposed to impose conditions, then we are the ones imposing the conditions.”

Meanwhile, former US ambassador Robert Ford has warned, in an article published in Asharq Al Awsat Tuesday, about the “dangers of dancing” with Tehran, pointing to the “refusal of the Republican Party and a number of Democratic representatives to negotiate” with it, as “they demand the continuation of maximum pressure on the Iranian regime until the complete abandonment of the nuclear and missile program and the cessation of its regional interventions.”

Ford added that Biden risks a very rapid decline in his influence and great dangers to his domestic agenda if he appears weak in the face of Iran.