US President Joe Biden has made it clear that he will not unilaterally lift sanctions against Iran and says it must first comply with its commitments on nuclear deals, despite demands on Sunday from the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic.
The exchange underscored the thorny diplomatic challenge ahead as Biden seeks to revive – without showing weakness – a key deal rejected by his predecessor, Donald Trump.
In a CBS interview aired on Sunday about stopping sanctions to persuade Iran to return to the negotiating table, Biden offered a clear answer: “No.”
The journalist then asked if the Iranians must first stop enriching uranium, which drew a confirming nod from Biden.
The clip was part of a longer interview that was broadcast later on Sunday on CBS.
The environmental agreement was reached in 2015 by the United States and other powers (China, Russia, Germany, France and the United Kingdom) after lengthy negotiations with Iran with the aim of preventing the country from developing nuclear weapons.
The deal has hung on a thread since Trump’s decision to withdraw from it in 2018 and reintroduce sanctions against Tehran.
Trump claimed that the agreement did not sufficiently limit Iran’s nuclear program and he complained about its “destabilizing” activities in the region.
Trump resumed US sanctions against Tehran that had been lifted by the agreement, and he pressured reluctant allies to do the same.
A year later, Tehran suspended compliance with key nuclear commitments.
The Biden administration has expressed its willingness to return to the deal, but insisted that Tehran would first resume full compliance.
On January 4, Iran announced that it had intensified its uranium enrichment process to 20 percent purity, well above the level allowed by 3.67 percent according to the deal, but far below the amount required for an atomic bomb.
Biden has promised to return to the agreement – but only on the condition that Iran first renews its original commitments.
Since Biden’s inauguration on January 20, the international community has been eager to learn how to keep its promise – complicated by Iran’s insistence that sanctions be lifted first.
The distance became clearer on Sunday, with Biden digging in the heels and the highest Iranian leader Ali Khamenei also showed no flexibility.
“If they want Iran to return to its commitments … the United States must completely lift the sanctions, in practice and not on paper,” Ayatollah said Sunday in a televised speech.
“We will then verify whether the sanctions have actually been removed correctly,” he continued, adding that this was “the final policy of the Islamic Republic.”
The Biden administration has been deliberately vague about how it plans to proceed – so much so that the president completely ignored the subject on Thursday in his first speech on foreign policy since he took office.
But Foreign Minister Antony Blinken spoke on Friday with his German, French and British counterparts to present a united front with the three European signatories to the nuclear deal that has condemned Trump’s unilateral withdrawal.
They face a short deadline: Iran has threatened to ban international inspectors from its nuclear sites on February 21 if US sanctions are not lifted.