WASHINGTON — The United States took a major step on Thursday toward restoring the Iran nuclear deal that the Trump administration abandoned, offering to join European nations in what would be the first substantial diplomacy with Tehran in more than four years, Biden administration officials said.
In a series of moves intended to make good on one of President Joe Biden’s most significant campaign promises, the administration also backed away from a Trump administration effort to restore United Nations sanctions on Iran. That effort had divided Washington from its European allies.
And at the same time, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told European foreign ministers in a call on Thursday morning that the United States would join them in seeking to restore the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, which he said “was a key achievement of multilateral diplomacy.”
Hours later, Enrique Mora, the European Union’s deputy secretary-general for political affairs, appealed to the original signers of the nuclear deal — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — to salvage it at “a critical moment.”
“Intense talks with all participants and the US,” Mora said on Twitter. “I am ready to invite them to an informal meeting to discuss the way forward.”
While it was unclear whether the Iranians would agree to join discussions, three people familiar with the internal debate said it was likely Iran would accept. The officials said Iran would probably be more open to a meeting with the European Union, where the United States was a guest or observer, rather than direct formal talks with Washington as a participant.
In recent days, the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and President Hassan Rouhani have suggested they were open to discussing some kind of synchronized approach, in which both sides would act on a certain date. That has an appeal inside the White House, one senior American official said, noting it was how key steps for carrying out the original 2015 deal were coordinated.
But with an Iranian presidential election only four months away, it was not clear if the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the nation’s political and military leadership would fully support re-engagement with the United States.
The first obstacle to restoring the deal may be a delicate political dance of who acts first. Blinken said this week that the Biden administration believed simply restoring the old deal was insufficient. He has other goals that include extending and deepening the agreement in an effort to rein in Iran’s growing missile ability and its continued support of terrorist groups and the Syrian government of Bashar Assad, issues that Iran has said are not on the table.
Throughout the 2020 presidential campaign and the transition, Biden insisted he would lift sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump only if Iran returned to the limits on nuclear production that it observed until 2019.
Under the original 2015 deal, Iran shipped 97% of its nuclear fuel out of the country and agreed to sharp limits on new production that would essentially assure it would take it a year or more to produce enough material for a single weapon. (It would take even longer to build a weapon.) In return, world powers lifted international sanctions that had choked the Iranian economy.
But over the objections of his first secretary of state and his first defense secretary — both of whom were fired — Trump restored American sanctions in 2018, arguing that the deal was flawed and that economic penalties would eventually break the government in Tehran, or force it into a new agreement. His move infuriated the other nations that brokered the accord with Iran after years of stop-and-start negotiations.
Over the past year, Iran has unabashedly compiled and enriched nuclear fuel beyond the limits negotiated in the 2015 agreement. Its leaders have accused the United States of being the first to violate its terms and vowed to come back into compliance only after America reversed course and allowed it to sell oil and conduct banking operations around the world.
Publicly, the Iranian foreign minister, Zarif, has cast doubt that Tehran will agree to talks before the American sanctions are lifted. In a tweet on Thursday, he played down Iran’s repeated violations of the accord as mere “remedial measures.”
A senior Biden administration official said that closing that gap would be a painstaking process.
The offer comes days before a Sunday deadline when Iran has said it will bar international inspectors from visiting undeclared nuclear facilities and conducting unannounced inspections of nuclear sites, unless the United States lifts sanctions reimposed by the Trump administration. The threat would not bar inspectors from declared nuclear-related facilities that are monitored on a regular basis. Still, the ability to inspect anywhere, on demand, by the International Atomic Energy Agency, is mandated by the nuclear deal.
And it is crucial to the international community’s confidence that Iran is not rapidly reconstituting its ability to make a weapon. There has been growing circumstantial evidence, much of it provided by Israeli intelligence, that the country never fully disclosed the sites involved in its program, dating back more than two decades.
A State Department official said that Thursday’s offer to meet was not specifically intended to prevent Iran from taking that step because the United States would not offer a concession to forestall an action that Iran has no grounds to take in the first place.
Nor did the official offer specifics about what proposals the United States might bring to initial meetings with Iran and the Europeans. Some experts have suggested that the United States could break the stalemate through measures that do not involve sanctions, such as supporting Iran’s recent request for an emergency $5 billion International Monetary Fund loan to help it respond to economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
A second senior Biden administration official said the negotiations were expected to include China and Russia. As the agreement frayed over the past four years, Iran sought to forge closer ties with both, leading some security experts to suggest that neither Moscow nor Beijing is eager to be a negotiating partner with the United States at a time of growing tensions with the Biden administration, and instead will pursue arms deals with Tehran.
Also unanswered is what role, if any, regional powers would play after being excluded from the last agreement, including Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was one of the most outspoken foes of the 2015 nuclear deal and remains unpersuaded that Iran can be trusted to abandon its nuclear ambitions under any agreement.
Other critics of the original agreement were quick to criticize the Biden administration’s new offer. Richard Goldberg, a former National Security Council official in the Trump White House, asked on Twitter whether Thursday’s statements amounted to “a broad transatlantic message of appeasement in the face of Iranian extortion.”
As a goodwill gesture, the Biden administration on Thursday also withdrew a demand from the Trump administration last fall that the United Nations Security Council enforce international sanctions against Iran for violating the original 2015 agreement that limited its nuclear program.
Nearly every other nation had rejected Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s insistence at the time that the United States could invoke the so-called snap back sanctions because Washington was no longer a part of the accord.
Additionally, the Biden administration is lifting travel restrictions on Iranian officials who seek to enter the United States to attend U.N. meetings.
Asked whether the United States has already had any preliminary diplomatic communications with Iran, the State Department official did not respond specifically, saying only that the administration had consulted broadly on the subject.
European officials, who more than a year ago formally accused Tehran of violating the deal, had largely been left to hold it together. Hoping the agreement would be restored once Trump left office, they delayed enforcing a dispute mechanism to punish Iran for repeatedly breaching the accord since then.