This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Iran and the United States have deepened their standoff over Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers as the leaders of both countries demanded the other side act first.
U.S. President Joe Biden reiterated he will not lift sanctions to get Iran back to the negotiating table, saying Tehran must first adhere to its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal.
Asked in a CBS interview on February 7 whether he would first halt sanctions to convince Iran to return to the bargaining table, Biden offered a succinct reply: “No.”
The president then nodded affirmatively when asked if Iran would first have to stop enriching uranium beyond the limits permitted under the deal.
Earlier, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the United States must lift all sanctions if it wants Iran to comply with its commitments under the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
“If they want Iran to return to its commitments, the United States must lift all sanctions in practice, then we will do verification and see if the sanctions were lifted correctly, then we will return to our commitments,” Khamenei said in comments run by state TV on February 7.
“It is the irreversible and final decision and all Iranian officials have consensus over it,” he added.
Analysts say the comments mark the first time Khamenei demanded verification of any future sanctions relief, reflecting a sensitivity over the issue after former President Donald Trump in 2018 withdrew from the deal and imposed crushing sanctions on Iran.
In response to Trump’s withdrawal, Tehran has gradually breached the deal by building up its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, refining uranium to a higher level of purity, and using advanced centrifuges for enrichment.
The dueling comments from the two leaders underscore the difficult diplomatic challenge ahead as Biden seeks to revive a key accord rejected by Trump. In addition to demanding Iran first return to compliance with the accord, the United States is seeking alongside its allies and partners to eventually reach a “longer and stronger” agreement including Iran’s missile program and regional policies.
Iranian officials insist the country’s missile program and regional policies are off the table and that the United States should first comply with the nuclear deal, which required Iran to put limits on its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
In an apparent walk-back of previous demands, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on CNN after Khamenei’s remarks that receiving compensation from the United States for the cost of sanctions imposed by Washington was not a “precondition” for restoring the nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, both sides are up against several deadlines.
Legislation passed by Iran’s parliament in December forces the government to harden its nuclear stance if U.S. sanctions are not eased by February 21, including by possibly expelling UN nuclear watchdog inspectors from the country.
In another interview on February 6 with an Iranian newspaper, Zarif urged Washington to act quickly to return to the nuclear deal.
“Time is running out for the Americans, both because of the parliament bill and the election atmosphere that will follow the Iranian New Year,” Zarif said in the interview in Hamshahri.
Iran’s new year usually begins on March 21 and celebrations last nearly two weeks.
Iran’s presidential election is in June.
Moderate President Hassan Rohani isn’t running again because of term limits and hard-liners that already control parliament may take control of the presidency, reducing the chances of a compromise with the United States.
“The more America procrastinates, the more it will lose,” Zarif said in the interview. “We don’t need to return to the negotiating table. It’s America that has to find the ticket to come to the table.”