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Iran rejects offer for informal nuclear talks with US, demands sanctions relief

Tehran says now ‘not the time’ for such a meeting; White House says it is disappointed at the response but ‘remains ready to reengage’

US President Joe Biden (left) and Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (Collage, AP)
US President Joe Biden (left) and Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (Collage, AP)

Iran on Sunday rebuffed an offer from the European Union to hold informal direct talks with the EU and US on Tehran’s nuclear program. US President Joe Biden’s administration had accepted in principle.

“Considering the recent positions and actions of the United States and the three European countries, [Iran] does not consider the time suitable to hold the informal meeting proposed by the European coordinator,” foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a statement.

Khatibzadeh said the first necessary step was the removal of sanctions placed on Iran by the previous US administration. “There has still been no change in the US positions and behavior yet,” he added, saying the Biden administration has continued “Trump’s failed policy of maximum pressure.”

He said Iran “will answer action with action, and just as it will return to [its] commitments in accordance with the lifting of sanctions, it will respond to hostile actions and behaviors in the same way.”

A White House spokeswoman told Reuters: “While we are disappointed at Iran’s response, we remain ready to reengage in meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with JCPOA commitments.”

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)

Biden has signaled readiness to revive the deal, but insists Iran first return to all its nuclear commitments, most of which it suspended in response to the sanctions, while Tehran demands Washington take the first step by scrapping the sanctions.

Khatibzadeh’s statements confirmed an earlier report in The Wall Street Journal. Citing two unnamed Western diplomats, the newspaper said Iran rejected the offer to hold talks in the coming days, as it wanted a pledge some US sanctions would be lifted after the meeting. Biden administration officials have said sanctions will not be lifted until Iran returns to compliance with the 2015 international accord limiting its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

The diplomats said there was still hope for resuming nuclear talks despite Iran’s spurning of the EU offer, and suggested that the rejection may be aimed at gaining negotiating leverage.

Israeli and its Arab allies in the region strongly oppose a US return to the deal in its original form.

Iran’s statements came just days after the top EU diplomat supervising the nuclear deal called for a concerted effort to reinvigorate the pact, even as the Islamic Republic reneges on some of its commitments.

“This is an occasion that we cannot miss,” to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters Friday via video link.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, and European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, shake hands for journalists prior to their meeting, in Tehran, Iran, February 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi, File)

The deal almost collapsed after the Trump administration unilaterally pulled the US out three years ago, triggering crippling economic sanctions on Iran. Britain, France and Germany notably struggled to keep it alive and have been heartened by President Joe Biden’s willingness to bring the US back in.

“I am convinced as coordinator of the JCPOA that we do have diplomatic space, a diplomatic window of opportunity to dialogue” in line with Biden’s aims, Borrell said. “We need to use this opportunity and focus on solutions to bring the JCPOA back on track in order for everybody [to fulfill] their commitments.”

Iran last week effectively set a deadline to lift the US sanctions within three months, after which it said it would erase surveillance footage of its nuclear facilities. It has also limited some monitoring of its activities which is meant to help ensure that Tehran’s nuclear work is peaceful.

The UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has also reported that Iran has added 17.6 kilograms (38.8 pounds) of uranium enriched up to 20% to its stockpile as of February 16 — far past the 3.67% purity allowed under the JCPOA.

Borrell said that Iran’s latest moves “are very much concerning.”

According to a report earlier this month, IAEA inspectors last summer found uranium particles at two Iranian nuclear sites that Iran tried to block access to.

Iranian authorities had stonewalled the inspectors from reaching the sites for seven months before the inspection, and Iranian officials have failed to explain the presence of the uranium, the Reuters news agency reported, citing diplomats familiar with the UN agency’s work.

The inspections took place in August and September of 2020, the report said. The IAEA keeps its findings secret and only shared the details of the find with a few countries.

An Iranian technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran. February 3, 2007. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

The Reuters report did not identify the sites. Earlier reports said one of the sites was in Abadeh, south of Isfahan — a location that in September 2019 was flagged by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the site of an alleged secret nuclear facility.

Iran denies that it seeks nuclear weapons. Netanyahu is adamant that the regime is fooling the world, and has said that a trove of nuclear documents concerning its rogue program, smuggled out of Tehran by the Mossad two years ago, proves Iran’s duplicity.

Netanyahu on Thursday said he has told Biden that he will do whatever it takes to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, regardless of whether Washington reenters the nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.

“I told him, with or without an agreement, my obligation as the prime minister of Israel, as the prime minister of the Jewish state, is to prevent a recurrence of the terrible things that have been done to our people,” he said in an interview with Channel 13.

“There is a regime whose flagship goal is to destroy us. I will do everything I can, everything in my power, to prevent it from attaining nuclear weapons,” he said.

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