Iran snubs Biden in calling for end to sanctions before talks

Iran has said the United States was the first to violate the terms of the 2015 nuclear accord. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG, NYTIMES) - Iran said the US must first return to the 2015 nuclear deal and lift sanctions if it wants to start talks with the Islamic Republic, appearing to snub an effort by the Biden administration to begin direct discussions before officially rejoining the accord.

The "key sequence" for nuclear talks between the Iran and US is commitment, action then a meeting, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a tweet on Friday (Feb 19).

The reaction - and a similar comment from Iran's foreign minister - highlighted the challenges in ending an impasse that has threatened to tip the Persian Gulf region into a new conflict in the years since former President Donald Trump exited the 2015 deal and reimposed sanctions.

The United States made a major move Thursday toward restoring the Iran nuclear deal that the Trump administration abandoned, offering to join European nations in what would be the first substantial diplomacy with Tehran in more than four years, Biden administration officials said.

In an effort to make good on one of President Joe Biden's most significant campaign promises, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with European foreign ministers and agreed that the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran "was a key achievement of multilateral diplomacy", and one worth pursuing again, according to a State Department statement.

Mr Biden has said he would lift sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump if Iran returned to the sharp limits on nuclear production that it observed until 2019.

Iran has said the United States was the first to violate the terms of the 2015 nuclear accord, and that it would act only after the United States reversed course and allowed it to sell oil and conduct banking operations.

The announcement will open what is likely to be a delicate set of diplomatic offerings.

The sparring over who moves first will be just the first of many hurdles. And with a presidential election only four months away in Iran, it was not clear if the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the nation's political and military leadership would fully support re-engagement with the United States.

A second senior Biden administration official said the negotiations would happen if other world powers, including China and Russia, were part of them. That left open the question whether regional powers that were excluded in the last agreement - Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates - would play any role.

The State Department said that Iran must return to full compliance with the deal - as the Biden administration has insisted - before the United States would unwind a number of American economic sanctions that Mr Trump imposed against Tehran, crippling the Iranian economy.

The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said on Twitter that Tehran was waiting for American and European officials to "demand an end to Trump's legacy of #EconomicTerrorism against Iran." "We'll follow ACTION w/ action," he tweeted.

The US 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. US 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.

But 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 US 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 US and want closer ties with Russia.

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