Iranian chief diplomat berates Biden calls for more sanctions relief

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Accusing President Biden of continuing “the thick case of Trump’s sanctions against Iran,” Iran’s new foreign minister said on Friday that in return for an agreement on the limits of his nuclear program, his country would demand much more reduction of sanctions. than what he received as part of the 2015 nuclear deal.

In two lengthy interviews with reporters at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, his first as a senior Iranian diplomat, Hossain Amirabdollahian said Iran would return “very soon” to negotiations in Vienna. But Tehran, he said, had received “mixed messages” from Washington regarding the reinstatement of the deal dropped by Donald J. Trump more than three years ago.

The foreign minister represents a new government more closely tied to the military and openly hostile to the West than his predecessor, and his repeated insistence on securing more benefits in return for the return to the agreement portends a looming impasse with the United States.

US officials have said if Iran is to see further sanctions lifted, it must prepare for what Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken described as a “longer and stronger” deal than the original. , which runs until 2030 – an agreement that would dramatically extend the period during which Iran would not be allowed to hold more than a token amount of nuclear fuel.

“We won’t have a so-called ‘longer and stronger’ deal,” Amirabdollahian told The New York Times in an interview Thursday night at his hotel across from United Nations headquarters. The 2015 agreement “has been the subject of a lot of harsh criticism in Iran,” he said, “but we accepted it.

US officials said they were not surprised by Mr Amirabdollahian’s stance. Although they did not meet with the new foreign minister – Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has banned direct contact – they said he made similar statements to EU leaders over the years. last five days.

US officials expected hard-line supporters of the new Iranian government to try to increase the price of returning to the deal that Mr. Trump withdrew in 2018. To gain influence, over the years In the past two years, Iran has resumed production of uranium and now has a stockpile of fuel well above the limits of the 2015 deal. Earlier this week, the UK Foreign Office said that ” Iran has never been so close to having the capacity to develop nuclear weapons “.

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Experts estimate that Iran could produce bomb-grade uranium in a month or two, but it would take 18 months or more to turn it into a working weapon – a long time for the United States, Israel and others react. But with each passing month, Iran has expanded its stockpiles and knowledge of how to enrich uranium, on a large scale, to a level that would make it a so-called threshold nuclear power – on the verge of possessing a nuclear power. nuclear weapon, but not quite above that line.

Mr Amirabdollahian’s rejection of any stricter or extended nuclear deal seems to indicate that Iran intends to preserve the timeline of the 2015 deal, with restrictions on the amount of nuclear fuel it can produce expire in largely in 2030. Concern is growing in the West that a period that seemed long enough in 2015 seems strangely short in 2021.

The new minister described his view of relations with the United States as radically different from that of his courteous and United States-trained predecessor Mohammad Javad Zarif, saying the previous government spent far too much energy negotiating long detailed agreements with the United States.

“The norm for us,” Amirabdollahian said, “will be to monitor the actions of US officials and judge on the basis of actions taken by President Biden,” rather than on the “paradoxical statements” by Mr. Biden. .

He suggested that the Iran deal had derailed long before Mr. Trump took office. He argued that President Barack Obama had worked, even after the deal was struck, to prevent Iran from reaping the benefits of the sanctions relief.

“It is important to note that the violations started under Obama and then under President Trump,” he said, claiming that banks and energy companies withdrew from signing agreements even when the agreement was in place.

He is partly right: Many companies feared the rules would change again after the 2016 presidential election. That fear has proven to be justified, as Mr. Trump rescinded the deal and imposed new sanctions.

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The same could happen again, Amirabdollahian said, so Iran is learning to live in a world of sanctions. “We will not tie the fate of our nation to the JCPOA,” he said, using the agreement’s official name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“We will come back to the negotiations and do it very quickly,” he told The Times. “But if our counterparts don’t change their behavior, we may not achieve the required result.”

During a daily press briefing, State Department spokesman Ned Price was skeptical of Iranian talks on resuming negotiations.

“You’ll have to ask them what ‘soon’ and ‘very soon’ mean,” said Price. “It’s a message we’ve been hearing all week, but so far we haven’t received any clarity on exactly what that means.”

Inside the White House and the State Department, talks are now expected to drag on into the next year and may collapse completely. Speaking at a press conference on Thursday as he wrapped up a week of diplomacy at the annual United Nations meeting, Mr Blinken warned Iran, as he has repeatedly done in recent weeks , that time was running out for a relatively straightforward return to nuclear 2015 a deal.

Uranium enrichment uses centrifuges to separate the common form of the element from the much rarer and more radioactive isotope that can create a nuclear explosion. It becomes usable in a weapon when about 90 percent or more is the most powerful form. Under the 2015 deal, Iran was limited to enrichment below 4%, enough to power a nuclear power plant.

Mr Blinken said that “with each passing day, as Iran continues to take measures that are not in line with the agreement – in particular the building up of larger stocks of highly enriched uranium up to 20% or even 60%, and the faster centrifuges’ rotation program progresses to a point beyond which it cannot be easily reversed.

Mr Blinken and other officials in the Biden administration have repeatedly declined to say how much time they have left or what specific metrics they could use to assess that the 2015 framework cannot be salvaged.

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He and State Department envoy for Iran Robert Malley consulted with allies on the issue in New York this week, but left without a specific date for talks to resume in Vienna. The difficulty of their task was underscored by a fiery speech at the United Nations on Tuesday by the new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, who condemned the United States as an international tyrant.

In two conversations – one Thursday evening with New York Times reporters and another Friday morning with a larger group of American journalists – Mr. Amirabdollahian declined several opportunities to explain why Iran was producing now, for the first time. , nuclear fuel which is close to the bomb. His aides said that producing fuel at 60% purity was largely a political declaration, a sign that Iran was planning to exercise all of its rights as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – which allows it to produce the fuel, but banned it. to take the last steps to make it a weapon.

But they noted that highly enriched uranium could be used in naval reactors, suggesting they might want to use it for this purpose. And they cited Mr Biden’s new deal with Australia, which calls on the United States and Britain to supply Australia with the technology for nuclear-powered submarines, which use uranium. highly enriched. Australia is not seen as a proliferation threat, but for the Iranians, this is largely evidence of a double standard.

Mr. Amirabdollahian offered a rare example of harmony with US diplomacy, calling on the new Afghan Taliban government to protect the rights of religious and ethnic groups. The Shiite-led Iranian government has sought to protect Afghanistan’s Hazara Shiite minority, which suffered massacres at the hands of the Taliban when the Sunni militant group last ruled Afghanistan.

“We firmly believe that the only solution is the formation of an inclusive government, in order to move forward,” Amirabdollahian said of Afghanistan. “We have been in contact with all parties.”