Iran rejects offer of direct talks with US on nuclear deal

Iran has rejected a European invitation to attend direct talks with the US over a return to the nuclear deal that Donald Trump abandoned in 2018, but says it will continue “consultations” through other channels.

The decision is a blow to the Biden administration, which had said it would attend talks with Tehran under EU auspices in a bid to revive the multi-party accord. That pact placed limits on Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

Both Washington and Tehran are out of compliance with the 2015 accord and have demanded the other take the first step to return to full compliance with it. 

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said on Sunday that timing was not “appropriate” for such a meeting because “there is still no change in the US position and behaviour”.

The White House said that it was disappointed but “ready to reengage in meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with [the deal’s] commitments.”

“We will be consulting with our P5+1 partners on the best way forward,” a spokesperson said, referring to the six other deal signatories.

The rejection highlights how difficult it is to agree on what steps are needed from both sides to orchestrate a return to the deal. US officials have blamed years of mistrust built up under the Trump administration.

The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign imposed a slew of financial sanctions that have harmed Iran’s economy at a time when it is struggling to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The causes of this impasse are not serious but the consequences may be serious,” said a senior US official, adding that, although sequencing issues were resolvable, waiting too long could mean that Iran moves further out of compliance with the deal.

Western officials are concerned that Tehran, which started escalating non-compliance in 2019 in retaliation for the US withdrawal, has accelerated steps to develop its nuclear programme this year.

“The path is very clear. The US should put an end to its illegal and unilateral sanctions,” Khatibzadeh said in a statement, accusing the Biden administration of “not giving up on” his predecessor’s maximum pressure policy. He added, however, that the Islamic republic would continue its “consultations” with other signatories of the nuclear deal and the EU. 

Alongside the US and three European signatories (UK, France and Germany), China and Russia are also signatories to the deal with Iran. Washington had already spoken to Beijing and Moscow in a bid to develop a joint position.

But although the Biden administration has taken some minimal steps intended to show goodwill, it does not want to offer significant inducements in advance for Iran to come back to the accord.

“This game of chicken is going to need to get sorted out,” said a congressional aide.

“We don’t think we should need to make a gesture to bring Iran back to the table,” said the senior US official. But the official framed the rejection as part of a “diplomatic dance”, adding: “We don’t consider that the door is shut.”

An EU diplomat expressed deep disappointment with Iran’s decision to reject talks. “I believe it is very serious,” said the diplomat.

Iran’s rejection was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Besides Tehran’s call for the US to drop sanctions, it has indicated it would also be open to other measures too. Iran has called on South Korea, Japan and other countries to return frozen Iranian assets. Although such transactions are not subject to US sanctions, people familiar with the matter said the return of the funds would be contingent on a “letter of comfort” from the US Treasury’s sanctions division, which has so far not been forthcoming.

Iran’s rejection also comes in the wake of Biden’s decision last week to launch air strikes targeting two Shia militia groups in Syria. Supporters of the decision greeted it as a signal to Iran, which has ties to such groups, that Washington would take a tough approach against Tehran’s proxies in the region.

US defence officials said “up to a handful” of people were believed to have been killed in the attack.

Officials in Washington sought to distance Iran’s rejection of nuclear talks to any reaction to the air strike. Tehran has condemned the air strikes, saying they could further destabilise the region. 

Iran’s top security official, Ali Shamkhani, said over the weekend that the US sought “to begin a new round of organised terrorism in the region” and vowed that the Islamic republic would “not allow this to happen again”. Iran has repeatedly accused Washington of helping Sunni radical groups — such as Isis — to put Shia-dominated Iran under pressure. 

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