US Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley told lawmakers on Wednesday that the prospects for reaching a deal with Iran are “tenuous” at best.
Speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and quoted by Reuters, Malley said the United States is ready to tighten sanctions and act with Israel and others to counter the Iranian threat if efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal fail.
"We do not have a deal ... and prospects for reaching one are, at best, tenuous," said the envoy.
Iran scaled back its compliance with the 2015 deal, in response to former US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement in May of 2018, but has held several rounds of indirect talks with the US on a return to the agreement.
Negotiations nearly reached completion in March before running into problems and ending abruptly.
Malley's comments drew fire from senior Democratic and Republican senators, who criticized a possible resurrection of the deal and expressed frustration that they do not know what President Joe Biden's "Plan B" will be if talks fail.
"When are you going to end (the talks)? When are you going to walk?" said Senator Jim Risch, the panel's senior Republican.
"I apologize. It's true that we have said things in the past," Malley replied. "What has always been our guiding star is what are the nonproliferation benefits that our experts tell us and the intelligence community tells us."
While saying that "all options are on the table", Malley also said a strike on Iran's nuclear program would only slow it down, not stop it.
He also blamed the current predicament on Trump's decision to abandon the deal, a stance Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, a Democrat, rebuffed.
"Lamenting the past ... is not a strategy to move towards the future," Menendez said, according to Reuters.
Menendez added that he did not understand why the Biden administration was still willing to negotiate nor what it would do if talks fail.
"Why is it that we are still keeping the door open?" Menendez said. "What is your Plan B?"
Malley said the United States is working with Israel and European partners to try to deter and respond to any Iranian actions, including attacks on US partners as well as its ballistic missile and drone programs.
US Lawmakers have several times expressed concerns about a possible Iran agreement.
In March, a bipartisan group of 21 Members of Congress, led by Gottheimer, Luria and Tom Reed (NY-23), urged the Biden administration to address concerns surrounding the looming agreement with Iran.
The lawmakers noted that, with reports indicating that the Vienna negotiations are nearing conclusion, there are several critical concerning issues that remain on the table — including the potential lifting of the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and of sanctions placed on the Supreme Leader.
A month earlier, nearly 200 House Republicans wrote to Biden and warned that any nuclear deal made with Iran without Congress' approval "will meet the same fate" as the 2015 agreement.