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U.S. Says It’s Willing to Meet With Iran to Restore Nuclear Deal

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 2/19/2021 Nick Wadhams and David Wainer
A picture taken on November 10, 2019, shows an Iranian flag in Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, during an official ceremony to kick-start works on a second reactor at the facility. © Photographer: ATTA KENARE/AFP A picture taken on November 10, 2019, shows an Iranian flag in Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, during an official ceremony to kick-start works on a second reactor at the facility.

(Bloomberg) -- The Biden administration said it would be willing to meet with Iran to discuss a “diplomatic way forward” in efforts to return to the nuclear deal quit by President Donald Trump in 2018, a first step toward easing tensions.

The offer is a politically risky effort by President Joe Biden to move beyond the standoff after a slew of U.S. 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 program.

“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 program,” 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 U.K., the U.S and Germany.

European parties to the nuclear deal welcomed the U.S. overture but Iran’s foreign minister suggested it didn’t go far enough.

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

The European parties to the deal welcomed the Biden administration’s move to return to diplomacy with Iran and the revival of their own “confident and in-depth” dialog with the U.S. They urged Iran not to follow through on threats to halt nuclear inspections and risk undermining diplomatic efforts.

Earlier: Iran’s Next Step Raises Specter of War for Top Nuclear Lawyer

Iran’s ultimatum inspired the latest diplomatic activity and may have accelerated the U.S. opening. Yet Thursday’s decision also will now shift international attention to Iran’s response and could expose any tensions over how to proceed in Tehran, where the JCPOA is almost as controversial as in Washington.

On Friday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suggested in a tweet that the measures didn’t go far enough and repeated demands that the U.S. first reverse Trump’s sanctions before the Islamic Republic unwinds nuclear activity to within the terms of the nuclear deal. Zarif used the hashtag #CommitActMeet, implying that a meeting depended on the U.S. officially returning to the accord and delivering sanctions removal first.

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

A State Department official, who asked not to be identified, 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 good will, the U.S. 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 U.S. official told reporters that restrictions predating the Trump administration would remain in effect. But it will be a reprieve for the officials affected.

Inspection Threat

Why U.S.-Iran Tensions Are Rising as Trump Term Ends: QuickTake

Although Biden campaigned for president on a pledge to restore U.S. participation in the nuclear accord, the key obstacle now comes down to sequencing: The U.S. wants Iran to first return to compliance with the deal, while Iran says the U.S. must undo sanctions first because it pulled out of the agreement.

Politics loom 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.

President Hassan Rouhani wants to save the accord and his legacy before he leaves office later this year, but he’s determined not to cave into U.S. demands. His hardline opponents -- who control most of Iran’s powerful state institutions and are likely to dominate June’s presidential elections -- oppose any engagement with the U.S. and want closer ties with Russia.

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 U.S. would seek to build a “longer and stronger” agreement to address what he called “deeply problematic” issues.

Critics say those issues include Iran’s ballistic missile program, as well as “sunset” provisions in the nuclear agreement that allow 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 program, despite IAEA reports that it was complying with the accord, and U.S. 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-era 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 U.S. representative to the UN.

Biden’s moves drew quick fire from at least one U.S. 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.”

(Updates with Iranian Foreign Minister reaction and context on Iranian politics in 7th and 13th paragraphs.)

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