• Bloomberg


The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden said it would be willing to meet with Iran to discuss a "diplomatic way forward” in efforts to return to the nuclear deal that President Donald Trump quit in 2018, a first step toward easing tensions that rose steadily over the past four years.

The offer is a politically risky effort by Biden’s administration to move past the standoff after a slew of U.S. sanctions cratered Iran’s economy and infuriated other world leaders, who argued that the 2015 accord and the inspections regime it created had reined in Tehran’s nuclear program.

"The United States would accept an invitation from the European Union High Representative to attend a meeting of the P5+1 and Iran to discuss a diplomatic way forward on Iran’s nuclear program,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement Thursday. The P5+1 refers to the participants in the nuclear deal with Iran: China, Russia, France, the U.K., the U.S and Germany.

The offer to hold talks was aimed at restoring a diplomatic pathway with Iran, which has been gradually abandoning its commitment to the nuclear deal in response to the Trump administration’s "maximum pressure” sanctions campaign. U.S. and European officials are alarmed by Iran’s decision to stop letting the International Atomic Energy Agency conduct the snap inspections Tehran voluntarily agreed to by suspending the so-called Additional Protocol from Tuesday.

A State Department official, speaking to reporters on background, said the moves weren’t a concession to Iran but rather a concession to common sense. The official, who declined to say when a meeting might occur, said Trump's approach had only brought Iran closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon.

In what may be seen as a sign of diplomatic goodwill, the U.S. said it’s lifting Trump-era travel restrictions on Iranian envoys that severely limited their movements in New York City. The envoys won’t be totally free to travel: A second U.S. official told reporters that earlier restrictions that predate Trump’s administration will remain in effect. But it will be a reprieve for the officials affected.

Officials at Iran’s United Nations mission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The officials denied that the U.S. moves were aimed at tempting Iran not to proceed on its threat to impose new limits by Feb. 21 on inspections by International Atomic Energy Agency monitors. One of the people said such moves would be a step backward while other countries are trying to move forward.

Earlier Thursday, European and U.S. officials warned that Iran’s further breaches of the 2015 deal could make it harder for the U.S. to re-enter the nuclear accord.

But China’s Foreign Ministry tweeted Friday that the U.S. rejoining the accord was "the only correct approach to resolve the impasse on the Iranian nuclear issue.”

Although Biden campaigned for president on a pledge to restore U.S. participation in the nuclear accord that Trump abandoned, the key obstacle to returning to the deal now comes down to sequencing: The U.S. wants Iran to first return to compliance with the deal, while Iran says the U.S. must undo sanctions first because it pulled out of the agreement.

Politics looms large on both sides. The Biden administration does not want to be seen as offering too much to Tehran and risk getting burned if an agreement can’t be reached. Iran’s government has national elections this summer and cannot be seen as caving to U.S. pressure.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month that Iran must first resume compliance with the deal’s constraints on its nuclear program.

Blinken said that after Iran does so, the U.S. would seek to build a "longer and stronger” accord to address what he called "deeply problematic” issues.

Critics say those issues include a failure to rein in Iran’s ballistic missile program, as well as "sunset” provisions in the nuclear agreement that allowed restrictions on processes such as uranium enrichment to expire over time. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, they argued, went too far in easing existing sanctions on Iran in exchange for too few limits on the country’s longer-term nuclear ambitions.

Trump officials argued Iran never intended to relinquish its nuclear program, despite IAEA reports that it was complying with the accord, and U.S. sanctions eventually blocked almost all of Tehran’s oil sales on international markets. The Trump administration also showed a willingness to target companies based in Europe for doing business with Tehran, an effort that angered allies and complicated moves to keep the nuclear accord alive.

In a separate but related move on Thursday, the Biden administration reversed a Trump administration claim that it had reimposed — or "snapped back” — United Nations sanctions on Iran, according to a letter sent to the U.N. Security Council seen by Bloomberg News.

"The United States of America hereby withdraws its letters to the Security Council” calling for the reinstatement of U.N. sanctions due to Iran’s noncompliance, wrote Richard Mills, acting representative of the U.S. to the U.N.

The Biden administration’s moves drew quick fire from at least one key Republican. Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement that he found it "concerning the Biden administration is already making concessions in an apparent attempt to re-enter the flawed Iran deal. The Trump administration created leverage for President Biden on Iran — we should not squander that progress.”

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