Dead end in Iranian nuclear talks sparked international dispute to save consensus

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WASHINGTON – Three weeks ago, the United States offered in good faith and under diplomatic pressure to rejoin nuclear talks with Iran. The double-edged overture fell flat: Iran refused to meet without first receiving financial incentives and the Biden administration made it clear, as White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said, “The ball is in their field . “

This sparked a new onslaught among world powers to revive a 2015 nuclear deal that the United States signed three years after negotiations and persuade Iran to steadily violate the terms of the deal.

Diplomats from Great Britain, France and Germany have since asked Iran to accept a joint European-American invitation to start informal negotiations on February 18. Officials from China and Russia have been more compassionate in asking Tehran to return to talks in recent days. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke on Wednesday in a phone call with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron about the delicate diplomacy.

“We have to use this time window,” said Josep Borrell Fontelles, the leading foreign policy representative of the European Union, on February 23 at a forum of the Atlantic Council.

Without two rounds of shuttle diplomacy from Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the agreement could well have fallen apart. Experts said Mr. Grossi prevented Tehran from crossing a diplomatic red line by persuading Iran last month to continue allowing some inspections of its nuclear facilities.

Iranian leaders are concerned that the United States is again rejecting its diplomatic pledges and insist it does not return to the nuclear weapons negotiating table until President Biden begins lifting the harsh sanctions imposed by the Trump administration when she withdrew from the deal in May 2018.

“America was the first to break the agreement and it should be the first to come back,” said Rouhani on Wednesday during a cabinet meeting in Tehran.

However, he added, “America should know that we are ready to implement the agreement. We are ready to implement it fully in return for complete and parts in return for parts. We are ready to revert to our full commitments to return them in full or to part of our commitments to return them in part. “

Mr. Biden has his own reasons for a wait and see approach.

He appears to be torn between allies in Europe and critics in Congress for expanding the nuclear deal to also curtail Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for proxy militias in the Middle East.

Although many high-ranking government officials negotiated and still support the nuclear deal while working for President Barack Obama, they also say they are unwilling to compromise any further – especially as Iran persistently tests Mr Biden’s borders.

“Can you assure us that we will not make concessions just to get a meeting?” Representative Brad Sherman, Democrat of California, asked Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Wednesday during a House hearing referring to the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“I can,” replied Mr. Blinken.

“Before we sanction them, do we expect that they can demonstrate that they are either fully compliant with the JCPOA or are on a negotiated path to full compliance?” Asked Mr. Sherman.

“Yes,” said Mr Blinken.

The call for a broader deal to address other Iranian threats reflects the Trump administration’s goals of a pressure campaign against Tehran. Mr Biden’s endeavor to “extend and strengthen” the agreement is also intended to reassure the democratic critics of the 2015 agreement.

Among them is Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee that oversees the State Department and the approval process for presidential candidates to work there.

“Iran’s continued engagement on so many other fronts – on ballistic missiles, in destabilizing the region, in continuing to advocate terrorism to its officials – you know that just getting back to the JCPOA is really difficult,” said Mr Menendez told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.

However, other Senate Democrats have proposed laws to address Iran’s missile program and proxy support “after all sides return to their commitments”.
under the nuclear deal.

Iranian leaders have warned that extending the deal is not a novice, and European diplomats fear that addressing the delicate negotiations will undo all efforts.

“Once we’ve taken the first step, we can move on or talk about other issues we have to face,” said Borrell at the Atlantic Council, a political center. “But if you talk about the problems ahead at the beginning, you will never start over.”

Trita Parsi, founder of the National Iranian American Council and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, a political center advocating military restraint, said both Iran and the United States would have to “swallow some pride and pay political costs” if they did Negotiations should start over.

“And the longer you wait, the higher the cost,” Parsi wrote in an analysis published on February 28th.

Iran’s most recent breach of the nuclear deal came on February 23, when Tehran officially prohibited the International Atomic Energy Agency from rushing to inspect at least some Iranian nuclear power plants.

Mr Grossi rushed in to negotiate a three-month stopgap deal during which Iran will allow inspectors access to its sites while diplomats try to restart negotiations. After Mr Grossi’s second meeting with Iranian officials in two weeks, European diplomats announced that they would “for the time being” withhold the formal reprimand of Iran’s refusal to allow rapid inspections.

Mr Grossi’s 90-day window will close at the end of May – just weeks before Iran holds elections in June to replace Mr Rouhani.

Mr. Rouhani was bound by the signing of the 2015 agreement, which marked a diplomatic breakthrough after years of cold relations between Iran and the United States. Mr Rouhani had to persuade the top Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to defy the opposition of his country’s hardliners and negotiate with the world powers to lift international economic sanctions against the Iranian economy.

The deal had secured Tehran billions of dollars in sanction relief before the Trump administration stepped down, halted Iranian oil exports and rocked the weakened economy. This reinforced Tehran’s suspicions that its dealings with the United States were a mistake.

However, it is widely believed by diplomats and experts that Mr Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif want to ensure sanctions relief by getting the nuclear negotiations off the ground ahead of Iran’s change of power, which is expected to bring in harder government by late summer.

Even small steps towards rapprochement have proven difficult.

On Tuesday, Tehran responded to Mr Blinken’s request for the release of the Americans held in Iran by opening the door to direct negotiations with the United States on a prisoner exchange. At least four American dual citizens are held by Iran, which has long imprisoned foreigners and dual citizens on false espionage allegations and exchanged them for Iranians imprisoned abroad.

An Iranian government spokesman, Ali Rabiei, said the impasse over the nuclear deal should not delay a prisoner swap. “We can discuss all prisoners at the same time and solve this problem,” Rabiei told journalists in Tehran.

Hours later, in Washington, Mr. Blinken reprimanded Tehran by issuing new travel restrictions against two members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for human rights violations against Iranian protesters in 2019 and 2020.

Last month, the United States lifted travel restrictions on Iranian officials visiting United Nations Headquarters in New York, dropping their demand that the United Nations Security Council enforce international sanctions against Iran. Both were presented to Tehran as a bona fide effort.

Despite the impasse, American and European diplomats said informal talks could begin in the coming weeks. If so, it is expected that the United States and Iran will agree to take steps simultaneously to restore compliance with the 2015 agreement.

Farnaz Fassihi contributed to the coverage from New York.

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