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Why Iran rejected the US and EU offer for nuclear deal talks

US and Iran ties are tense. Iran’s rejection of nuclear deal talks won’t help.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran on February 16. His administration as so far rejected Iran nuclear deal talks with the US and EU.
Presidency of Iran/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Iran has rejected an opportunity to discuss the future of a nuclear deal with the United States, keeping both nations on a confrontational path instead of a diplomatic one.

On February 18, Washington accepted an offer to hold informal talks with Tehran brokered by the European Union. The goal was for both sides to negotiate a way forward so the US could reenter the multinational pact that limited Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief the Trump administration left in 2018. After that exit, Iran pressured America to lift those penalties by, among other things, enriching uranium above agreed-to levels in the accord.

Now, the Trump administration has been replaced by Biden’s, which wants to reenter the deal. But efforts to do that have reached a stalemate: Iran wants reimposed sanctions on it lifted before welcoming America back into the fold, and the US pushes for Tehran to comply with the accord’s limitations on its nuclear development.

Iran had said it was “considering” the offer to meet, signaling EU-brokered negotiations were mere days or weeks away. But that “maybe” turned into a “no” on Sunday, a troubling indicator that the diplomatic path won’t be straightforward.

The “time isn’t ripe for the proposed informal meeting,” Saeed Khatibzadeh, the spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, tweeted on Sunday.

The Wall Street Journal, which first reported Tehran’s decision, noted Iran doesn’t want to meet with the US until it’s clear it would get sanctions relief from such a meeting. Instead, the Islamic Republic wants the EU to mediate a “step-by-step process” whereby both Washington and Tehran offer concessions before any talks.

A White House spokesperson noted the Biden administration is “disappointed at Iran’s response,” but added, “We remain ready to reengage in meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance” with the nuclear deal.

Keeping chances for diplomacy alive, however, is easier said than done.

Why Iran rejected the offer for nuclear deal talks, at least for now

It’s always hard to know why, exactly, Iran’s government does what it does. But in his tweet, Khatibzadeh offered two concrete clues.

He said the reason “the time isn’t ripe” for US-Iran talks was because of “US/E3 actions,” meaning recent moves made by the US and three European signatories to the nuclear deal: the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.

The US part seems straightforward. Tehran is upset that sanctions continue to strangle its economy, and it’s also surely unhappy with President Joe Biden’s decision to strike Iranian-backed proxies in eastern Syria on Thursday. That attack — in retaliation for multiple aggressions by Tehran-aligned militants against US and allied targets over the last few weeks — hit nine facilities helpful to the proxies’ smuggling of weapons.

Agreeing to talks soon after the bombs dropped was surely viewed as infeasible among key Iranian officials, experts said.

And the E3 part likely has to do with a plan to censure Iran over its nuclear development. Simply put, Tehran curbed the ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency — a UN watchdog — to inspect its nuclear sites as stipulated in the Iran nuclear deal. To show their displeasure, the US and the three European nations want to formally rebuke the Islamic Republic in the global body.

The motion set to be presented this week is meant to “express the board’s deepening concern with respect to Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA,” the US wrote in a paper to other member states of the agency. Tehran, unsurprisingly, called the pending move “destructive” and threatened to weaken its ties to the IAEA even further — perhaps cutting them off altogether.

For the moment, it doesn’t look like the Biden administration is panicked by Iran’s meeting refusal. “We are not going to be dogmatic or sticklers for form,” an unnamed senior official told the Wall Street Journal. “We want to make sure that whatever formal process is agreed is one that is going to be effective.”

The chance for diplomacy, then, isn’t dead, and some experts say Washington and Tehran will eventually reach an agreement. What is dead, though, is any lingering chance for a smooth and easy way forward.

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