A US return to the Iran nuclear deal looked distant on Sunday as US President Joe Biden said Tehran must halt nuclear enrichment before Washington lifts any sanctions on the regime.
When asked if his administration will “lift sanctions first in order to get Iran back to the negotiating table” in an interview with CBS Evening News, Mr Biden replied “no”.
When asked again if Iran would have to stop enriching uranium before the US lifts any sanctions, Mr Biden nodded.
The interview represents the most explicit rejection of Iranian demands on the issue by Mr Biden since coming to office last month, and puts Iran and the US firmly at odds.
But Iranian officials have insisted the US lift sanctions before it will reverse its nuclear development.
“Iran has fulfilled all its obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal, not the United States and the three European countries … If they want Iran to return to its commitments, the United States must lift all sanctions first.,” Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a gathering of air force commanders on Sunday.
Mr Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 deal, which also includes Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, in May 2018. Since then, Iran has increased enrichment of uranium.
Recent estimates by the International Atomic Energy Agency have put Iran’s stock of enriched uranium at 2.4 tons, more than 10 times what is allowed under the agreement.
In January Iran began enriching uranium to 20 per cent in another contravention of the deal, which limits production to a purity of 3.67 per cent. Weapons-grade uranium is enriched to 90 per cent.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week that the newly appointed Iran envoy Robert Malley is now focused on consulting with allies about the best approach forward and denied any contacts with Iranian officials so far.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has held talks with the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Russia, Germany, UAE and Saudi in the last week.
US national security advisor Jake Sullivan warned recently of an “escalating nuclear crisis”, saying the programme had “advanced dramatically” since the former Trump administration abandoned the deal in 2018.
The senior US official urged a return to the deal as a way “to put Iran’s nuclear program in a box.” That in turn will allow for a “global effort” to take on other Iranian challenges such as ballistic missiles. He called this goal of returning to the deal a “critical early priority.”
A State Department official reiterated to The National on Sunday that Iran’s compliance will be required before such return.
“As the President and Secretary Blinken have said, if Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same thing and then use that as a platform to build a longer and stronger agreement that also addresses other areas of concern,” the official said.