In US, Zarif offers permanent scrutiny of nuclear sites for sanctions relief

In response to proposal, US official says Iran must stop enriching uranium and negotiate deal that includes a permanent end to nuclear ambitions

Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran, smiles as he arrives for a meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at United Nations headquarters, July 18, 2019 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)
Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran, smiles as he arrives for a meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at United Nations headquarters, July 18, 2019 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Thursday offered to formalize stricter international inspections of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities in exchange for permanent sanctions relief.

That offer, first reported by The Guardian, came as Zarif said he had several alternatives in mind to help break the impasse, but that he wouldn’t be picking up the phone to talk to the Americans and dismissed the idea of a meeting between the two country’s presidents.

“It’s not about photo ops. We are interested in substance,” Zarif said in New York during a visit that saw his movement highly restricted.

Meeting reporters, Zarif said Iran would be willing to move up an Iranian parliament ratification of an agreement Tehran made with the International Atomic Energy Association — one that outlined access to Iranian nuclear sites and other information.

According to The Guardian, this would grant greater access to Iran’s nuclear facilities for international inspectors in an arrangement that would be made permanent.

In this April 9, 2018 file photo, released by an official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani listens to explanations on new nuclear achievements at a ceremony to mark “National Nuclear Day,” in Tehran, Iran. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP, File)

A spokesman for Zarif explained that Iran is already abiding by the agreement under the 2015 nuclear deal, but it doesn’t have the force of law because it’s not supposed to be ratified by the Iranian parliament until 2023. Zarif told reporters that the ratification could come earlier if the US eased sanctions.

A senior administration official responded that Trump has repeatedly said he is willing to have a conversation with Iranian leaders.

The official said that if Iran wants to make a “serious gesture,” it should immediately stop enriching uranium and negotiate an agreement that includes a permanent end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, including development of nuclear-capable missiles. The official was not authorized to publicly discuss the issue and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and US President Donald Trump confer during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, in Washington, July 16, 2019. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Zarif also accused the Trump administration of trying to “starve” his people through sanctions and declared that Iran would not bow: “We will survive. We will prosper — long after President Trump is gone — because we have 7,000 years of proof of that.”

In a wide-ranging discussion with US-based media on the sidelines of a visit to the United Nations, Zarif also said that Iran could reverse recent moves to surpass uranium enrichment limits set by its nuclear deal with world powers.

“We are moving forward but that could be reversed as soon as the other side is prepared to implement its commitment,” he said, referring to US sanctions imposed on Iran.

Earlier this week, Iran denied it was willing to negotiate over its ballistic missile program, after Zarif appeared to suggest it was on the table.

Tensions are running high between Iran and the United States since President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the US out of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers that had been brokered under the Obama administration. Trump also brought back sweeping sanctions targeting Iranian oil exports that had been lifted by the deal, forcing countries around the world to dramatically limit business with the Islamic Republic and squeezing Iran’s economy as the currency tumbles.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran also remain high on the Strait of Hormuz.

A US warship on Thursday destroyed an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz after it threatened the ship, Trump said. The incident marked a new escalation of tensions between the countries less than one month after Iran downed an American drone in the same waterway and Trump came close to retaliating with a military strike.

Last month, after Iran shot down the more than $100 million US surveillance drone, Trump said he aborted a retaliatory strike only after learning that as many as 150 people may have been killed.

A UH-1Y Venom helicopter takes off from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer in the Strait of Hormuz, July 18, 2019. (US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Dalton Swanbeck/Released)

Heavyweights China and Russia are calling for de-escalation. French President Emmanuel Macron has made efforts to ease tensions, talking to both Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Trump.

“We will talk to the French, the Japanese, others. If they have anything of substance, we will listen,” he said. Macron “is trying to reduce tension,” Zarif said.

“I have every reason for optimism otherwise I wouldn’t be alive,” Zarif said. “Realistically, I believe we were a few minutes away from a war [last month] and prudence prevailed, so here’s a reason to be an optimist.”

Speaking before the Iranian drone was shot down, Zarif said Trump “exercised prudence by not agreeing to suggestions that were made to him to retaliate [last month],” adding that: “In my view he received information that no war with Iran would be a short war.”

“We live in a very dangerous environment. The United States has pushed itself and the rest of the world into probably the brink of an abyss,” Zarif said.

Zarif touted Iran’s relations with countries like China, Russia and India, but warned Iran would not expose details of its trading partners around the world.

He said that an Iranian supertanker seized this month with the help of British naval forces off the coast of Gibraltar was not carrying oil in violation of European sanctions on Syria. The British government said it would release the tanker if Iran could provide guarantees the oil was not heading to Syria.

And as Trump makes nuclear talks with North Korea a centerpiece of his foreign policy, Zarif said Iran had this advice for the country: “We told them to be careful. … Don’t give up too much – you may not have it in four years.”

Earlier Thursday, Iran said its Revolutionary Guard seized a foreign oil tanker and its crew of 12 for smuggling fuel out of the country, and hours later released video showing the vessel to be a United Arab Emirates-based ship that had vanished in Iranian waters over the weekend.

The announcement cleared up the fate of the missing ship but raised a host of other questions and heightened worries about the free flow of traffic in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most critical petroleum shipping routes. One-fifth of global crude exports pass through the strait.

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