U.S. Says ‘Ball in Iran’s Court’ on Reviving Nuclear Deal

U.S. Says ‘Ball in Iran’s Court’ on Reviving Nuclear Deal
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Arsalan Shahla, Golnar Motevalli and Jonathan Tirone
·3 min read
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(Bloomberg) --

Iran and the U.S. sparred over how to revive a nuclear deal, reflecting the challenge ahead for the Biden administration even as nuclear inspectors persuaded Iran to temporarily allow some wider monitoring.

Tehran over the weekend renewed its demand that the new U.S. administration rejoin the accord and lift crippling Trump-era sanctions on the Iranian economy before talks can resume. By contrast, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said “the script has been flipped” because President Joe Biden has offered to re-engage with the Islamic Republic.

“It is Iran that is isolated diplomatically now, not the United States, and the ball is in their court,” Sullivan said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

While each side is demanding the other take the first step toward returning the U.S. to the accord abandoned by former President Donald Trump, officials said on Sunday that the two governments have been in indirect contact since Biden took office a month ago.

Sullivan said Biden’s offer to talk with Iran about how it can return to full compliance with the nuclear accord “still stands,” even after Tehran rebuffed the overture on Friday. He said the sides are in contact on the release of U.S. citizens detained by Iran, a dispute that will be critical to resolving broader mutual hostility.

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh confirmed to state television that Iran has received messages from the U.S. via the Swiss embassy in Tehran.

Iran is poised on Tuesday to suspend a voluntary agreement that gives the International Atomic Energy Agency expanded inspections powers over its nuclear sites. Tehran tapped the brakes on the escalation on Sunday with a temporary understanding that partially offsets its revocation of the voluntary accord.

The compromise follows U.S. and European pleas for Iran to continue adhering to the IAEA’s so-called Additional Protocol to give diplomacy a chance.

“This is a temporary solution in the hope we can return to what we had,” IAEA Director General Mariano Grossi said after talks in Tehran with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

The protocol that Iran is revoking allowed unannounced inspections of nuclear material and installations where undeclared activity is suspected. While the IAEA will still be allowed into Iran to account for declared nuclear stockpiles, oversight of places such as machine shops and mines involved in uranium enrichment will be lost, as will camera surveillance of Iranian nuclear sites.

Earlier Sunday, Zarif reiterated that any talks with the U.S. “will not be about changing the terms of the agreement, regional issues or missile issues.” They also would have to address a guarantee that the U.S. won’t quit the deal a second time, Zarif said on state-run Press TV.

The 2015 deal between Iran, the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K., France and Germany locked in restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program, notably uranium enrichment, in exchange for sanctions relief. Iran has always said its nuclear program is entirely civilian.

Trump unilaterally took the U.S. out of the deal in 2018 and violated its terms by reimposing and expanding a severe sanctions regime on Iran’s economy. Iran responded by ramping up its nuclear activities. The crisis almost triggered a war between the two countries.

Biden is effectively continuing Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy by choosing to maintain sanctions and denying Iran access to at least $10 billion trapped in overseas accounts because of the U.S. penalties, Zarif said.

While Iran will return to full compliance with the original deal “the minute” the U.S. formally rejoins, it will further increase its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium until the U.S. returns, he said.

(Updates with Iran’s actions on international inspections starting in seventh paragraph.)

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