Iran said unwilling to restart nuclear talks until hardliner Raisi enters office

In blow to US efforts to revive accord, Tehran reportedly notifies parties it’s staying away from negotiation table until after Rouhani vacates presidency in August

Ebrahim Raisi, who went on to win Iran's presidential election, waves after casting his vote at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, on June 18, 2021. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)
Ebrahim Raisi, who went on to win Iran's presidential election, waves after casting his vote at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, on June 18, 2021. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

Iran has reportedly notified European mediators that it won’t resume indirect negotiations with the US aimed at reviving a multilateral nuclear accord until after hardliner President-elect Ebrahim Raisi has taken office.

“They are not prepared to come back before the new government,” a diplomatic source told the Reuters news agency on Wednesday. The official acknowledged  that it wasn’t clear whether that meant until August 5, when Raisi replaces the relative moderate Hassan Rouhani, or later on, when a new cabinet is in place.

“We are now talking probably not before mid-August,” the source said.

Iran and the US have been holding indirect talks in Vienna since April over their joint return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which granted Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for significant curbs on its nuclear program. Former president Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions against Iran, which led the Islamic Republic to step up uranium enrichment to its highest-ever levels in violation of the accord.

The sixth round of talks adjourned in late June, and while the Biden administration has expressed interest in returning to the negotiation table, US officials have voiced increasing pessimism regarding the chances for an agreement.

Analysts have speculated that an agreement between the US and Iran would be more likely during the ongoing lame-duck period while Rouhani is still in power and before the inauguration of Raisi — a longtime proponent of his country’s nuclear program. It was Rouhani’s administration that negotiated the multilateral agreement with former president Barak Obama in 2015.

President Hassan Rouhani, left, speaks with the media after his meeting with President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, right, who is current judiciary chief, in Tehran, Iran, June 19, 2021. (Official Website of the Office of the Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

A US State Department spokesperson confirmed on Wednesday that Iran had asked for more time before restarting talks in Vienna due to the presidential transition.

“We were prepared to continue negotiating but the Iranians requested more time to deal with their presidential transition,” the spokesperson said.

“When Iran is done with its process, we are prepared to plan our return to Vienna to continue with our talks,” she added. “We remain interested in seeking mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, though as [Secretary of State Antony Blinken] has made clear, this offer will not be on the table indefinitely,” the spokesperson added.

Earlier Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the recently foiled kidnapping attempt of an Iranian-American journalist, allegedly by Tehran, would not influence US efforts to re-enter the JCPOA.

While Psaki categorically condemned the kidnapping plot, she told reporters during the daily press briefing, “We still see it in our national interests to engage in ongoing discussions so that can have greater visibility into Iran’s path to acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

Also on Wednesday, Rouhani said he hoped Raisi’s administration “will be able to finish the job” in Vienna.

In this image made from April 17, 2021, video released by the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, Iran. (IRIB via AP)

“There is no difference if the current or next administration will be successful, but we are very sorry that nearly six months of opportunity has been lost,” he said.

The outgoing president also warned that his country could enrich uranium at weapons-grade levels of 90 percent if it chose, though it still wanted to save its tattered nuclear deal with world powers.

But the comments, carried by the state-run IRNA news agency, came as he also criticized Iran’s wider theocracy for not allowing his government to reach a deal soon to restore the 2015 atomic accord.

Rouhani’s powers have waned as the public soured on his government amid an economy suffering under US sanctions. But his remarks signal Iran could take a more belligerent approach with the West under Raisi.

The 2015 nuclear deal, which saw Iran gain relief from those crushing sanctions, limited Tehran’s program to enriching only up to 3.67% — enough to power a civilian nuclear reactor. It now enriches a small amount of uranium up to 60%, a short step from weapons-grade levels.

Rouhani also complained that hardliners had blocked his efforts to reach a deal in Vienna.

AP contributed to this report

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