Iran floats offer on nuclear inspections; US skeptical

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran could ratify a document prescribing more intrusive inspections of its nuclear programme if the US abandoned economic sanctions.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran could ratify a document prescribing more intrusive inspections of its nuclear programme if the US abandoned economic sanctions.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Iran on Thursday (July 18) signalled a willingness to engage in diplomacy to defuse tensions with the United States with a modest offer on its nuclear program that met immediate skepticism in Washington.

Iran's foreign minister told reporters in New York that Iran could immediately ratify a document prescribing more intrusive inspections of its nuclear programme if the US abandoned its economic sanctions, media organisations reported.

The document, known as the Additional Protocol, gives UN inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) more tools to verify that a nuclear programme is peaceful.

While US officials suggested they viewed the idea as a non-starter, analysts said it could provide an opening for US President Donald Trump's administration to pursue diplomacy.

"If Trump wants more for more, we can ratify the Additional Protocol and he can lift the sanctions he set," the Guardian newspaper quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as telling reporters.

However, since Iran is already implementing the protocol and has often offered in the past to ratify it, it was not clear that Mr Zarif's proposal constituted much of a concession.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal agreed to by Teheran, Iran must seek ratification of the protocol eight years after the deal was adopted. That would be the same time that the US must seek permanent termination of many of its sanctions on Iran.

 
 
 

US officials responded skeptically, suggesting it was a disingenuous effort to get sanctions relief.

"Their whole game is to try to get any sanctions relief they can while maintaining the ability to get a nuclear weapon in the future," said an official on condition of anonymity, saying Iran was "trying to spin a small action into" something bigger.

The official noted that under the offer, Iran would keep enriching uranium, a process that can produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, and would do nothing to rein in its support for regional proxies in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

A second US official was also dismissive.

"If Iran wants to make a serious gesture, it should start by ending uranium enrichment immediately and having an actual decision maker attempt to negotiate a deal that includes a permanent end to Iran's malign nuclear ambitions, including its development of nuclear-capable missiles," said the official.

'A CREATIVE OPENING'?

Former US officials saw a diplomatic opening.

"If the foreign minister has suggested that the Majlis (the Iranian parliament) would ratify the additional protocol now, that is a serious step," said Ms Wendy Sherman, a former Obama administration official who negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal.

"Of course, Iran will want something serious in return. Nonetheless, a creative opening," she added.

Mr Richard Nephew, a former US official now at Columbia University, said Mr Zarif surely knew Washington would reject his idea. But he said it signalled Iran wants a diplomatic solution and suggested Iran has no intent to throw out IAEA inspectors.

 
 
 

"The administration ought to use this as an opportunity to talk seriously internally about what it wants and to test the Iranian position, but I doubt that they will," he said.

US-Iranian tensions have increased since Mr Trump's decision last year to abandon the nuclear deal that Iran struck with six major powers in 2015 under which it agreed to rein in its atomic program in return for broad relief from economic sanctions.

Relations have deteriorated since May, when Mr Trump tightened US sanctions on Iran to try to choke off its oil exports, the main source of foreign exchange and government revenues for the Islamic Republic.

Washington is trying to force Tehran to agree to stricter limits on its nuclear capacity, curb its ballistic missile program and end support for proxy forces in a regional power struggle with US-backed Gulf Arab states.

Fears of direct US-Iranian conflict have risen since May with several attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, Iran's downing of a US surveillance drone and a plan for US air strikes on Iran last month that Mr Trump called off at the last minute.

Mr Trump on Thursday said a US Navy ship had "destroyed" an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz after the aircraft threatened the ship. But Mr Zarif told reporters at the United Nations he was not aware of any Iranian drone being downed.