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France urges Iran to avoid nuclear escalation ahead of talks

French foreign minister speaks to Iranian countepart, calls on Tehran to ‘be constructive,’ abstain from further violations of nuclear deal, ahead of indirect negotiations with US

Iran's heavy-water nuclear facility is backdropped by mountains near the central city of Arak, Iran, on January 15, 2011. (AP/ISNA, Hamid Foroutan, File)
Iran's heavy-water nuclear facility is backdropped by mountains near the central city of Arak, Iran, on January 15, 2011. (AP/ISNA, Hamid Foroutan, File)

France’s top diplomat spoke with his Iranian counterpart Saturday and urged Iran to be “constructive” and avoid further nuclear escalation ahead of talks next week aimed at trying to salvage a global accord curbing the Iranian nuclear program.

The United States and Iran said Friday they will begin indirect negotiations next week, in one of the first signs of progress in efforts to try to get both countries back into compliance with the 2015 accord. Then-president Donald Trump pulled the US out of the accord in 2018, and Iran has been steadily violating its restrictions ever since.

Diplomats from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and Iran will take part in Tuesday’s EU-brokered talks in Vienna. Those six countries have remained in the 2015 accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The painstakingly negotiated accord saw Iran granted relief from international sanctions in exchange for accepting limits on its nuclear program aimed at easing fears it could acquire an atomic weapon. Iran insists it is not seeking to make nuclear bombs.

The United States will not take part directly but, for the first time since Trump pulled out of the agreement in 2018, a US delegation will be present. The European Union said its mediator will hold “separate contacts” with the United States in Vienna.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke Saturday with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to prepare for the talks.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian speaks with an official during a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, Feb 22, 2021. (Yves Herman, Pool via AP)

“I encouraged Iran to be constructive,” Le Drian said in a statement. “I called on Iran to abstain from any further violation of its current commitments in the nuclear domain that could threaten the movement toward resumed discussions.”

US President Joe Biden came into office saying that getting back into the nuclear accord and getting Iran’s nuclear program back under international restrictions was a priority for his US administration. Iran wants sanctions to be lifted first.

Tehran on Saturday appeared to reject an approach that would see both sides take gradual mutual steps to build trust and return to the accord.

“No step-by-step plan is being considered,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told Iran’s Press TV.

“The definitive policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is the lifting of all US sanctions, whether those which Trump reimposed after withdrawing from the JCPOA or those which he initiated, as well as sanctions imposed under any other heading,” he added.

Biden has promised to rejoin the agreement on condition Iran first returns to respecting commitments it abandoned in retaliation for Trump pulling out and reimposing swingeing sanctions.

Tehran says Washington has to end the sanctions before it will make any moves to get back in line, and is refusing to hold direct negotiations with the US.

Zarif insisted the aim of the talks was to “rapidly finalize sanction-lifting and nuclear measures for choreographed removal of all sanctions, followed by Iran ceasing remedial measures.

“No Iran-US meeting. Unnecessary,” he wrote on Twitter.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif listens during the talks in Moscow, Russia, January 26, 2021. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)

In 2018, Trump dramatically withdrew from the pact and reimposed crippling economic sanctions on Tehran. The following year, Tehran announced it would start breaking limits agreed on nuclear activity.

The remaining participants in the deal have scrambled in recent years to salvage it from total collapse as Tehran has made good on its threat, while insisting it is not seeking a nuclear weapon.

Some analysts have seen Biden’s hesitation at immediately removing sanctions as a way to pressure Iran — or a way to preserve political capital for other priorities as the nuclear deal remains fiercely opposed by Trump’s Republican Party.

Israel is also strongly opposed to a return to the deal in its original form, and has communicated as much to Washington. The sides recently reestablished a bilateral group for cooperating in the effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms, agreeing to set up a joint team for sharing intelligence about Iran’s nuclear program.

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