US agrees to join Iran nuclear deal talks ‘at critical moment’

President Hassan Rouhani and the head of Iran nuclear technology organization Ali Akbar Salehi inspecting nuclear technology
The US and European powers have called on Iran to return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal

The US has agreed to take part in talks involving Iran and world powers with a view to reviving a landmark nuclear deal. Iran vowed to limit its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of economic sanctions under the 2015 deal.

But former President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal in 2018, leading Iran to roll back commitments. Now the US has expressed intent to rejoin the deal under President Joe Biden. On Thursday, the Biden administration made its firmest pledge yet to re-engage with Iran over the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). State department spokesman Ned Price said the US had accepted an invitation from the European Union to meet Iran for talks.

Senior EU diplomat Enrique Mora, who offered to convene the talks, said this was a “critical moment” for the deal. Iran has not formally responded to the resumption of talks proposed by the EU, but in a tweet, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suggested the country would only comply with the deal fully once US sanctions had been lifted. Iran has ratcheted up pressure on the Biden administration, threatening to block international inspections of its nuclear sites within days if the US does not lift sanctions. Iran, which says its nuclear programme is peaceful, has been increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium. Enriched uranium can be used to make reactor fuel, but also nuclear bombs.

In response, the US and its European allies – the UK, France and Germany – have called on Iran to refrain from blocking inspections, warning jointly that the move would be “dangerous”. On Thursday, the four powers said they shared a commitment to ensuring Iran could “never develop a nuclear weapon”. This would be the first substantial diplomacy with Iran in more than four years, an initial meeting hosted by the EU to get around the stand-off over who moves first in the complex path back to the nuclear deal. To show good faith, the Biden administration eased stringent travel restrictions on Iran’s UN diplomats imposed by Mr Trump. It also reversed his effort to restore all UN sanctions on Iran. When it comes to American sanctions, Mr Biden says he’ll lift them once Iran has resumed compliance with the deal, but Iran has demanded an end to US sanctions by the weekend, threatening to limit inspections of nuclear sites if it doesn’t. The US and other Western powers have urged it against taking what they call a step backward when they’re ready to move forward.

Iran’s reaction to that statement was dismissive, but it’s not clear how it would respond to a formal invitation for talks. Suspicions that Iran was using its nuclear programme as a cover to develop a nuclear bomb prompted the EU, US and UN to impose sanctions in 2010. In 2015, Iran reached a deal with six powers – the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany – that saw it limit its nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief. Under the terms of the deal, Iran agreed to limit its uranium enrichment and allow international inspectors to access sites and facilities. Mr Trump abandoned the deal in May 2018 and reinstated US sanctions. He wanted a new deal that would also curb Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its involvement in regional conflicts.

Iran refused and, when the sanctions took effect, was plunged into an economic crisis. Since sanctions were tightened in 2019, Iran has moved to stop international inspections of its nuclear sites and step up uranium enrichment in breach of the deal.

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