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WORLD | 18-02-2021 23:34

US says it’s willing to meet with Iran to restore nuclear deal

Joe Biden's administration offers to attend talks with Iran led by European allies, reverses two largely symbolic steps against Tehran imposed by Donald Trump.

The United States said it would be willing to meet with Iran to discuss a “diplomatic way forward” in efforts to return to the nuclear deal that ex-US president Donald Trump quit in 2018, a first step toward easing tensions that rose steadily over the past four years.

The offer is a politically risky effort by US President Joe Biden’s administration to move past the standoff after a slew of US sanctions cratered Iran’s economy and infuriated other world leaders, who argued that the 2015 accord and the inspections regime it created had reined in Tehran’s nuclear programme.

“The United States would accept an invitation from the European Union High Representative to attend a meeting of the P5+1 and Iran to discuss a diplomatic way forward on Iran’s nuclear programme,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement Thursday.

The P5+1 refers to the participants in the nuclear deal with Iran: China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany.

The offer to hold talks was aimed at restoring a diplomatic pathway with Iran, which has been gradually abandoning its commitment to the nuclear deal in response to the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign. US and European officials are alarmed by Iran’s decision to stop letting the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conduct the snap inspections Tehran voluntarily agreed to by suspending the so-called Additional Protocol from February 23.

A US State Department official, speaking to reporters on background, said the moves weren’t a concession to Iran but rather a concession to common sense. The official, who declined to say when a meeting might occur, said Trump’s approach had only brought Iran closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon.

In what may be seen as another sign of diplomatic goodwill, the US said it’s lifting Trump-era travel restrictions on Iranian envoys that severely limited their movements in New York City. The envoys won’t be totally free to travel: a second US official told reporters that restrictions that predate Trump’s administration would remain in effect. But it will be a reprieve for the officials affected.

Inspection threat

Officials at Iran’s UN mission didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The US officials on Thursday denied that the moves were aimed at tempting Iran not to proceed on its threat to impose limits on IAEA inspections, adding that such moves would be a step backward while other countries are trying to move forward.

Earlier Thursday, European and US officials warned that Iran’s further breaches of the 2015 deal could make it harder for Washington to re-enter the nuclear accord.

But China’s Foreign Ministry tweeted Friday that the US rejoining the accord was “the only correct approach to resolve the impasse on the Iranian nuclear issue.”

Although Biden campaigned for president on a pledge to restore US participation in the nuclear accord that Trump abandoned, the key obstacle to returning to the deal now comes down to sequencing: the United States wants Iran to first return to compliance with the deal, while Iran says the Washington must undo sanctions first because it pulled out of the agreement.

Politics looms large on both sides. The Biden administration doesn’t want to be seen as offering too much to Tehran and risk getting burned if an agreement can’t be reached. Iran’s government has national elections this summer and can’t be seen as caving to US pressure.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month that if Iran returns to compliance with the accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the United States would seek to build a “longer and stronger” agreement to address what he called “deeply problematic” issues.

Critics say those issues include a failure to rein in Iran’s ballistic missile programme, as well as “sunset” provisions in the nuclear agreement that allowed restrictions on processes like uranium enrichment to expire over time. The JCPOA, they argued, went too far in easing existing sanctions on Iran in exchange for too few limits on the country’s longer-term nuclear ambitions.

Trump officials argued Iran never intended to relinquish its nuclear programme, despite IAEA reports that it was complying with the accord, and US sanctions eventually blocked almost all of Tehran’s oil sales on international markets. The Trump administration also showed a willingness to target companies based in Europe for doing business with Tehran, an effort that angered allies and complicated moves to keep the nuclear accord alive.

UN sanctions

In a separate but related move on Thursday, the Biden administration reversed a Trump administration claim that it had reimposed – or “snapped back” – United Nations sanctions on Iran, according to a letter sent to the UN Security Council and seen by Bloomberg News.

“The United States of America hereby withdraws its letters to the Security Council” calling for the reinstatement of UN sanctions due to Iran’s non-compliance, wrote Richard Mills, the acting US representative to the UN.

The administration’s moves on Thursday drew quick fire from at least one US lawmaker. Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement that he found it “concerning the Biden administration is already making concessions in an apparent attempt to re-enter the flawed Iran deal. The Trump administration created leverage for President Biden on Iran – we should not squander that progress.”

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by Nick Wadhams & David Wainer, Bloomberg

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