Iran supreme leader: 'The post-U.S. era has started'

Biden says US won’t lift sanctions before Iran stops uranium enrichment

Islamic Republic reiterates demand US first remove measures; Israel’s US ambassador says president’s statement a ‘positive sign’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

President Joe Biden speaks about the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House, in Washington, on February 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Joe Biden speaks about the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House, in Washington, on February 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

US President Joe Biden told CBS Sunday that his administration will not agree to lift sanctions on Iran before it halts its uranium enrichment program, adding that the Islamic Republic will have to first resume compliance with the nuclear deal.

Asked during the interview, which will air in its entirety later on Sunday, whether he will heed Iran’s demand to first lift sanctions to facilitate talks, Biden told the network: “No.”

In a follow-up, the president was pressed whether Iran will have to stop enriching uranium first. He nodded his head in the affirmative.

Israeli Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan praised Biden’s response in an interview with Channel 12. “I think it is a very, very positive sign,” he said.

Israeli Ambassador to the US and the UN Gilad Erdan. (Israeli Mission to the UN)

However, he went on to add that Biden’s goal of returning to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action would be a “mistake” and urged the new US administration not to “give up the leverage” created by sanctions imposed by former US president Donald Trump, who bolted the JCPOA in 2018.

Erdan said that in the coming weeks, talks on the matter would be held between the Israeli and American national security councils, “and we will reach a common path forward.”

“The goal is the same goal… to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” the envoy said.

Technicians work at the Arak heavy water reactor’s secondary circuit, as officials and media visit the site, near Arak, Iran, December 23, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

Biden’s comments drew a line in the sand in the US’s standoff with Iran, whose Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Sunday that Washington must lift all sanctions before Tehran reverses any nuclear production steps.

“The side with the right to set conditions to JCPOA is Iran since it abided by all its commitments, not US or 3 European countries who breached theirs,” Khamenei wrote on Twitter, referring to France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

“If they want Iran to return, US must lift all sanctions. We’ll verify and if it’s done properly, we’ll return to our commitments,” Khamenei wrote.

Later in the day, he tweeted, “The post-U.S. era has started.”

The top diplomats of Britain, France, Germany, and the United States held talks on Friday that included discussions on Iran for the first time in almost three years.

Khamenei’s statement came a day after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told an Iranian newspaper that recent parliament legislation forces the government to toughen its stance on the US if sanctions are not eased in two weeks, the Reuters news agency reported.

In December, the Iranian parliament, led by hardliners, passed legislation that set a two-month deadline for the easing of sanctions.

On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal reported that United Nations nuclear inspectors found traces of radioactive material at Iranian nuclear sites that could indicate work on nuclear weapons.

An International Atomic Energy Agency inspector disconnects the connections between the twin cascades for 20% uranium production at Natanz nuclear power plant south of Tehran on January, 20, 2014. (Kazem Ghane/IRNA/AFP)

The report cited several unnamed diplomats briefed on the matter, who said the locations in which the material was found contributed to suspicions. Tehran barred inspectors from accessing those same locations for a number of months last year, it said.

The report did not make clear whether the suspected weapons development was recent or old. The International Atomic Energy Agency and Western intelligence services all believe Iran had a clandestine nuclear weapons program until 2003, though Tehran denies ever attempting to obtain such weapons.

Last month, Tehran announced it was beginning to enrich uranium up to 20 percent — far beyond the 3.5% permitted under the nuclear deal, and a relatively small technical step away from the 90% needed for a nuclear weapon. Iran also said it was beginning research into uranium metal, a material that technically has civilian uses, but is seen as another likely step toward a nuclear bomb.

Iran insists it is not seeking to develop nuclear weapons, a position repeated last month by Zarif.

In January, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Biden has been “very clear” that “if Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations under the [deal], the United States would do the same.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last Sunday that Iran was currently months away from being able to produce enough material to build a nuclear weapon. And, he said, that timeframe could be reduced to “a matter of weeks” if Tehran further violates restrictions it agreed to under the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

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