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Biden administration says it's ready for nuclear talks with Iran

Iran had threatened to bar U.N. nuclear inspectors if the U.S. doesn't lift economic sanctions by next week.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to staff members during President Joe Biden's first visit to the State Department on Feb. 4.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration said Thursday that it was ready to hold talks with other world powers and Iran to discuss Tehran's nuclear program, marking a first step in a possible diplomatic deal in which Washington could re-enter the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.

The U.S. would be prepared to accept an invitation from the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy to attend a meeting of the countries that signed the 2015 nuclear agreement — Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran — "to discuss a diplomatic way forward on Iran's nuclear program," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.

The offer coincided with a tweet from the E.U.'s deputy secretary general for political affairs, Enrique Mora, who said that the accord was at "a critical moment" and that he was ready to invite all the participants in the deal to "an informal meeting to discuss the way forward."

Senior State Department officials told reporters that the announcement represented not a breakthrough but merely a first step on a potentially long, arduous diplomatic effort.

"I think we recognize that this is just a very first initial step to say that we are prepared to attend the meeting that would be convened by the E.U.," a senior State Department official said.

"We recognize that that's not in and of itself a breakthrough. Even the first meeting itself may not be a breakthrough," the official said. "But it is a step. Until we sit down and talk, nothing's going to happen."

Image: The Bushehr nuclear power plant Iran
Workers stand in front of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant in 2010.Reuters file

President Joe Biden promised during his campaign that he would be prepared to bring the U.S. back into the nuclear agreement if Iran returned to compliance with the deal's restrictions on its nuclear work. Since Biden's inauguration, administration officials have issued cautious statements and made no indication when talks might begin.

After several weeks when neither side appeared ready to make the first diplomatic move, the U.S. signaled its willingness Thursday to sit down at the negotiating table.

The senior State Department official suggested that it was up to the Iranians whether they would accept the E.U. invitation.

"We'll find out, I assume in the coming days, whether they are prepared to join a meeting that the E.U. would convene. Of course, our hope is that they would, but we'll just have to wait and see," the official said.

Asked whether the Biden administration had spoken to Iranian officials over the past several weeks leading up to Thursday's announcement, the senior official declined to answer directly.

"I'm not going to get into, sort of, the logistics of exactly who we spoke to," the official said.

Since Biden's election in November, Iran has flouted the agreement's restrictions on its nuclear program. The Biden administration's diplomatic green light came after Iran threatened to bar U.N. nuclear inspectors from gaining access to nuclear sites starting next week unless Washington lifts economic sanctions.

The State Department announcement came hours after a joint statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his British, French and German counterparts following talks Thursday. In the statement, Blinken signaled that the U.S. would be "prepared to engage in discussions with Iran" about both countries' returning to compliance with the nuclear deal.

The three European foreign ministers "welcomed  the United States' stated intention to return to  diplomacy with Iran as well as the resumption of a confident  and in-depth dialogue between the E3 and the United States," according to the statement.

The lengthy communique underlined an effort by Biden and European partners to present a united front to Iran after a bitter trans-Atlantic divide during the Trump administration.

Despite strong objections from the Europeans, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear accord, known as the JCPOA, in 2018 and reimposed economic sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy and prompted Tehran to flout restrictions on its nuclear activity.

The 2015 nuclear agreement lifted international and U.S. sanctions in return for strict limits on Iran's nuclear program.

The joint U.S.-European statement Thursday also included a stern warning to Iran not to follow through on its threat to block U.N. inspectors next week from gaining access to various nuclear sites, a crucial pillar of the deal. Iran's Parliament adopted a law in November setting a deadline of Feb. 21, which is Sunday, to expel inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, if the U.S. fails to lift sanctions.

"The E3 and the United States are united in underlining the dangerous nature of a decision to limit IAEA access, and urge Iran to consider the consequences of such grave action, particularly at this time of renewed diplomatic opportunity," the statement said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the Europeans must abide by their own commitments and "demand an end to Trump's legacy of Economic Terrorism," arguing that Iran's actions were responses to U.S. and European "violations" of the accord.

"Remove the cause if you fear the effect," he tweeted shortly after the Western allies released their joint statement. "We'll follow ACTION w/ action."

Early Friday, Zarif tweeted that Iran would "reverse all remedial measures" if the U.S. lifts sanctions on his nation.

Amid Western warnings, the IAEA's director general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, was due to visit Tehran on Saturday to try to persuade Iran to hold off. Grossi planned to hold discussions with Iranian officials "to find a mutually agreeable solution for the IAEA to continue essential verification activities in the country," said Fredrik Dahl, an agency spokesman.

Under the nuclear deal, Iran had agreed to snap inspections and monitoring of its nuclear work by the IAEA.

A European diplomat described the joint E3-U.S. statement as "more carrot than stick," as it urged Iran to halt uranium enrichment that exceeded limits set out in the 2015 deal and not to follow through on threats to cut off the IAEA inspections.

Iran's threat to bar U.N. inspectors is one of a series of moves that appear intended to ramp up pressure on Washington to move quickly to re-enter the agreement and lift the sanctions, which have devastated Iran's economy, according to European diplomats and former U.S. officials.

The Iranian rial lost 80 percent of its value against the dollar during the Trump administration, pushing many Iranians into poverty, while the economy has sharply contracted. The rial briefly rallied after Biden's election in November, but the currency is on the decline again, and Iranian leaders are increasingly eager to secure relief from the U.S. sanctions.

In violation of the nuclear deal, Iran has started producing uranium metal, which can be used for nuclear weapons, and it is now enriching uranium up to 20 percent — putting it one technical step away from weapons-grade levels.

Iran says it remains within the parameters of the 2015 agreement, arguing that it was the U.S. that violated the deal by withdrawing from the pact in 2018 and reimposing sanctions.

A rocket attack on a U.S.-led coalition base in the northern Iraqi town of Erbil on Monday, which killed a civilian contractor and wounded a U.S. service member, also threatened to complicate Western diplomatic efforts. The incident carried echoes of previous rocket assaults by Iranian-backed militias on U.S. targets, but the Biden administration has said it remains unclear who was behind the attack and whether Iran had any role in orchestrating it.

Image: Domestically built centrifuges in Natanz, Iran
Three versions of domestically built centrifuges from an Iranian uranium enrichment plant.AP file

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a rare phone call Wednesday with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, expressed concern about Iran's failing to meet its obligations under the agreement and called for a more constructive tone that would open the way for diplomacy.

"It is now time for positive signals that create trust and increase the chances of a diplomatic solution," Merkel said, according to a readout from Steffen Seibert, her spokesperson.

In another break with the previous administration to pave the way for diplomacy, U.S. officials Thursday withdrew a Trump administration assertion that all U.N. sanctions had been reimposed in September. Other signatories to the deal did not recognize the Trump administration's action as valid. The acting U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Richard Mills, informed the U.N. Security Council of the move in a letter, two sources familiar with the matter said.

Senior State Department officials told reporters that the U.S. was also lifting additional travel restrictions that the Trump administration imposed on Iran's U.N. mission in New York. The step will restore the status quo that existed before the Trump administration's actions, which severely limited the movement of Iranian diplomats in New York.

"Today's actions return our long-standing posture with regard to Iran at the U.N. and in our view will strengthen our ability to work with allies and partners in the U.N. Security Council to address Iran's nuclear program and other destabilizing activities," a senior State Department official told reporters.