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Iran’s nuclear activities do not mean it’s seeking atomic bomb, FM Zarif says

Tehran’s top diplomat once again insists US must return to deal before Iran does, as Turkish counterpart expresses hope for sanctions removal

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during a press conference in Tehran, Iran, June 10, 2019 (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during a press conference in Tehran, Iran, June 10, 2019 (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Iran’s nuclear activities do not mean that it is seeking to build an atomic bomb, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Friday, according to Iranian media reports.

Meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara, Zarif claimed Tehran does not view nuclear arms as a tool for security.

He once again stressed that Iran expects the US to return to the 2015 nuclear deal before it halts its increased enrichment activities and returns to compliance with the accord.

“The United States unilaterally withdrew from this comprehensive course of action,” Zarif told journalists, speaking through an interpreter. “It is the duty of the United States to return to this agreement and to fulfill its obligations.

He added: “The moment the United States fulfills its commitments, we would be prepared to fulfill ours.”

Cavusoglu said Turkey hopes the United States will return to the nuclear deal, and would like to see sanctions imposed on Iran lifted.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu gives a statement in Brussels, January 21, 2021. (Stephanie Lecocq/Pool Photo via AP)

“I hope that with the Biden administration, the United States return to this agreement and cooperation on the [nuclear] issue is restored,” Cavusoglu said. “In this way, God willing, the sanctions and embargoes imposed on brotherly Iran are lifted.”

Former US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Iran’s nuclear deal in 2018. Under the deal, Tehran had agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

After the US then ramped up sanctions, Iran gradually and publicly abandoned the deal’s limits on its nuclear development. Iranian state TV reported Thursday that Iran has exceeded 17 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium within a month, moving its nuclear program closer to weapons-grade enrichment levels.

Biden, who was vice president when the deal was signed during the Obama administration, has said he hopes to return the US to the deal. But he has said Tehran must resume compliance first, a demand reiterated by new Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday.

Zarif was in Turkey as part of a tour of countries of the South Caucasus aimed at building support for the creation of a regional platform that would include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Russia and Turkey, and encourage cooperation between the countries.

The initiative was proposed following a ceasefire agreement in November that halted weeks of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

On Thursday Iran said it plans to install 1,000 new centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear facility within three months and that its scientists had exceeded previous goals for uranium enrichment.

This photo released November 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, made the announcement about the centrifuges while Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf visited the Fordo nuclear facility, an underground site near the city of Qom.

Natanz is Iran’s main nuclear enrichment plant. An explosion at the site last year, which foreign media reports have attributed to Israel or the US, damaged an advanced centrifuge development and assembly plant.

Uranium enriched to 20% is a short technical step away from weapons-grade 90% enrichment. Western nations have criticized Iran’s enrichment activity and called on Tehran to adhere to its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers.

Roughly 250 kilograms (550 pounds) of 20% enriched uranium are needed to convert it into 25 kilograms of the 90% enriched needed for a nuclear weapon.

The Biden administration’s policy on Iran is expected to be a point of contention between the new US administration and Israel.

Israeli officials have voiced strong objections to the US rejoining the nuclear deal, and have also issued threats against Iran in recent weeks.

IDF chief Aviv Kohavi issued a rare public criticism of the US plans on Tuesday and said that he had ordered the military to develop operational plans for striking Iran’s nuclear program. Defense Minister Benny Gantz later appeared to rebuke Kohavi for the comments.

Israeli F-35 fighter jets roll on the tarmac during the “Blue Flag” multinational aerial exercise at the Ovda air force base, north of the Israeli city of Eilat, on November 11, 2019. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

Iran’s aggressive moves in recent months were believed to be partially aimed at increasing its leverage ahead of negotiations with Biden.

The Biden administration has pledged to consult with Israel and its other Middle East allies before making decisions regarding Iran.

Reports have indicated Biden is set to appoint Robert Malley, a veteran Middle East official, as his administration’s special envoy for Iran.

In this April 1, 2015, file photo, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, right, speaks with US Secretary of State John Kerry, center, and Robert Malley, left, then-senior director for Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf States at the US National Security Council, on the sidelines of the Iran nuclear talks at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Keystone, Laurent Gillieron, File)

Iran hawks are “aghast,” believing Malley to be a key architect of the 2015 nuclear deal that Trump withdrew the US from in 2018, AP said without citing named sources.

These hawks are said to fear Biden “wants to rejoin the Iran deal at any cost and may be willing to sacrifice the security of Israel and the Gulf Arab states to do so,” AP reported. The hawks, it said, regard Malley as less than fully supportive of Israel.

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