Washington could now seek an “alternative” to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday.

With 11-month talks in Vienna struggling to reach agreement on reviving the 2015 deal, a complication was added March 5 when Russia foreign minister Sergei Lavrov announced Moscow wanted assurances that any sanctions over Ukraine would not affect its economic and other relations with Iran.

Price said that while “we are not at that point, and…hope not to get there,” Washington was open to “engage bilaterally [with Iran] on these pressing and urgent matters.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meeting with visiting Iranian foreign minister on Tuesday said US suggestions that Moscow was blocking efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal were untrue, following talks with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amira-Adollahian in Moscow.

Lavrov made a surprising statement saying Russia had received written assurances from Washington that sanctions against Moscow over Ukraine would not hinder cooperation within the framework of the deal, which lifted sanctions on Tehran in return for curbs on its nuclear program.

Washington has not mentioned any assurance granted to Moscow, whether just to facilitate the implementation of a revived JCPOA or otherwise.

Rising tensions with talks paused

Tensions in the Middle East have been raised with the pausing of the Vienna JCPOA talks, leaving US ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions on Iran continuing and the expanded Iran nuclear program running.

Israel and the United Arab Emirates, both lukewarm over the US approach to the Ukraine crisis, have made a joint approach to Washington seeking greater military aid.

Iran, which fired missiles Sunday at an alleged Israeli base in Erbil, northern Iraq, Sunday in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike March 7 in Damascus that killed two Iranian soldiers. Tehran has also paused talks with Saudi Arabia after the Saudis announced the beheadings of 81 people, around half of whom the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said were Shia who had taken part in political protests.

Greater impunity

Price said Monday that the Iranian missile strike was “clear violations of Iraq’s sovereignty” and a taste of how Tehran might act “with far greater impunity if it were not verifiably and permanently constrained from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

Noting that the Vienna talks over JCPOA revival had involved “complex negotiations” that could now be “something close to the finish line,” Price stressed there were still “outstanding issues… the hardest issues” left to resolve.

Added to these, Price said that there were “now some external factors that are weighing on where we are” –a reference to Lavrov’s demand that any sanctions over Ukraine should not affect JCPOA implementation, in which Russia has been expected to play a central role, especially in shipping out Iranian enriched uranium in excess of JCPOA limits.

JCPOA ‘best vehicle’

“You may have seen the statement from the E3, our French, our German, our British partners, that came out over the weekend,” Price explained. “It said, ‘Nobody should seek to exploit JCPOA negotiations to obtain assurances that are separate to the JCPOA.’ We would certainly endorse that statement.”

In stressing that Washington’s preference was for agreement in Vienna as “the best vehicle to achieve our policy objectives,” Price echoed the statement from Antony Blinken March 9 that Washington and Moscow had a common interest in limiting the Iranian nuclear program through reviving the JCPOA.

Price floating the notion of a bilateral US-Iran agreement might be an attempt to upset Moscow or disorientate Tehran. But the spokesman gave no indication as to why bilateral talks with Iran outside the Vienna process might suddenly overcome the outstanding issues that negotiators have failed to resolve in 11 months.

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