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

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

The United States would be prepared to accept an invitation from the European Union High Representative 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 European Union’s deputy secretary general for political affairs, Enrique Mora, who said the nuclear 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.”

Workers stand in front of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant in 2010.Reuters file

Senior State Department officials told reporters the announcement did not represent 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 EU,” said a senior State Department official. “We recognize that that’s not in and of itself a breakthrough, even the first meeting itself may not be a breakthrough,” the official told reporters.

“But it is a step. Until we sit down and talk nothing’s going to happen.”

President Joe Biden had 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. But since Biden’s inauguration, administration officials had issued cautious statements and made no indication when talks might begin with Iran.

After several weeks in which neither side appeared ready to make the first diplomatic move, it was the U.S. on Thursday that signaled its willingness to sit down at the negotiating table.

There was no immediate response from Iran following the announcement.

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 amid a threat from Iran to bar U.N. nuclear watchdog 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 on Thursday. In the statement, Blinken signaled 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 the new U.S. president and European partners to present a united front to Iran on the nuclear accord after a bitter transatlantic divide over the issue during former President Donald Trump’s tenure.

Despite strong objections from the Europeans, Trump withdrew the United States 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 between Iran and the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China lifted international and U.S. sanctions on Tehran in return for strict limits on the country’s nuclear program.

The joint U.S.-European statement on Thursday also included a stern warning to Iran not to follow through on a threat to block U.N. atomic agency inspectors next week from gaining access to various nuclear sites, a crucial pillar of the 2015 nuclear deal. The Iranian parliament adopted a law in November setting a deadline of Feb. 21 to expel inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency if the United States failed to lift economic 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 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 in response 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.”

Amid Western warnings, the IAEA’s director, 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,” agency spokesman Fredrik Dahl said.

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

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

Iran’s threat to bar U.N. inspectors is one of a series of moves that appear aimed at ramping up pressure on Washington to move quickly to re-enter the agreement and lift sanctions that 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 Trump’s presidency, pushing many Iranians into poverty, while the economy has sharply contracted. The rial briefly rallied following Biden’s election in November but the currency is now on the decline again, and Iranian leaders are increasingly anxious to secure relief from the U.S. sanctions.

In violation of the terms of the nuclear deal, Iran has started producing uranium metal, which can be used for nuclear weapons, and 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 one 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.

Three versions of domestically built centrifuges from an Iranian uranium enrichment plant.AP file

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a rare phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday, expressed concern about Iran 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,” the German leader said, according to a readout from Merkel’s spokesperson Steffen Seibert.

In another break with the previous administration meant to pave the way for diplomacy, U.S. officials on Thursday withdrew a Trump administration assertion that all U.N. sanctions had been reimposed on Iran in September. Other signatories to the deal did not recognize the Trump administration’s action as valid. Acting U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Mills informed the United Nations Security Council of the move in a letter, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

Senior State Department officials told reporters the U.S. was also lifting additional travel restrictions imposed on Iran’s U.N. mission in New York by the Trump administration. The step will restore the status quo that existed before the Trump administration’s actions, which had 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.