Iran’s chief diplomat reprimands Biden and calls for further sanctions

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The new tough Iranian foreign minister accused President Biden of “continuing the thick acts of Trump sanctions against Iran” and said Friday that in exchange for approving any limits on its nuclear program, his country would be demanding far more sanctions than it would under the framework of the 2015 nuclear deal.

In two lengthy interviews with journalists during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, his first as a top Iranian diplomat, Hossain Amirabdollahian said that Iran would “very soon” return to negotiations in Vienna. But Tehran, he said, has received “conflicting messages” from Washington about the restoration of the deal that Donald J. Trump dropped more than three years ago.

The Foreign Minister represents a new government that is more closely linked to the military and openly directed against the West than its predecessor.

American officials said if Iran wishes to lift other sanctions it must prepare for what Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has called a “longer and stronger” deal than the original deal, which runs until 2030 – one that would be substantial extend the period during which Iran cannot own more than a symbolic amount of nuclear fuel.

“We won’t have a so-called ‘longer and stronger’ deal,” Amirabdollahian told the New York Times in an interview on Thursday evening at his hotel across from the United Nations headquarters. The 2015 agreement “has many sharp critics in Iran”, he said, “but we have accepted it”.

American officials said they were not surprised by Mr. Amirabdollahian’s position. While they did not meet the new foreign minister – the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has banned direct contact – they said he had made similar statements to European leaders in the past five days.

US officials have expected the hardliners in the new Iranian administration would try to raise the price of the return to the deal that Trump withdrew in 2018. To gain influence, Iran has been producing uranium for the past two years and now has fuel reserves well above the limits set out in the 2015 agreement. Earlier this week, the UK Foreign Office stated that “Iran has never been this close to developing nuclear weapons”.

Experts estimate Iran could be producing bomb-grade uranium in a month or two, but it would take 18 months or more to make it a working weapon – plenty of time for the United States, Israel, and others to respond. But with each passing month, Iran has expanded its holdings and knowledge of large-scale enrichment in uranium to a level that would make it a so-called emerging nuclear power – just before having a nuclear weapon, but not quite above that line.

Amirabdollahian’s rejection of a tougher or extended nuclear deal seemed to signal that Iran intends to meet the 2015 agreement timeframe, with restrictions on the amount of nuclear fuel it can produce largely expiring in 2030. There is growing concern in the West that what seemed long enough in 2015 will appear worryingly short in 2021.

The new minister described his view of dealings with the United States in a dramatically different way than that of his urbane, US-trained predecessor Mohammad Javad Zarif.

“The yardstick for us,” said Mr. Amirabdollahian, “will be one who observes the actions of US officials and judges on the actions of President Biden, not on the“ paradoxical statements ”of Mr. Biden.

He suggested that the Iran deal was upside down long before Mr Trump took office. He argued that even after the deal, President Barack Obama worked to keep Iran from reaping the benefits of sanctions easing.

“It’s important to note that the violations began under Obama and then President Trump,” he said, claiming that banks and energy companies withdrew from signing contracts even after the deal was in place.

He is partly right: Many companies feared that the rules would change again after the 2016 presidential election. Those fears proved valid when Mr Trump lifted the deal and imposed new sanctions.

The same thing could happen again, said Mr Amirabdollahian, so that Iran learns to live in a world of sanctions. “We will not tie the fate of our nation to the JCPOA,” he said, using the formal name for the agreement, the joint comprehensive plan of action.

“We’re going to get back to the negotiations and do it very quickly,” he told the Times. “But if our colleagues don’t change their behavior, we may not achieve the desired result.”

At a daily press conference, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ned Price expressed skepticism about the Iranian talks on resuming negotiations.

“You have to ask her what ‘soon’ and ‘very soon’ mean,” said Mr. Price. “That’s a message we’ve been hearing all week, but we haven’t had any clarity as to what that means exactly.”

There is now an expectation within the White House and State Department that the talks could spill over into next year and collapse completely. Speaking at a press conference Thursday as he wrapped up a week of diplomacy at the annual United Nations meeting, Mr Blinken warned Iran, as he has repeatedly done over the past few weeks, that the time for a relatively easy return to the nuclear year 2015 consent expires.

In uranium enrichment, centrifuges are used to separate the common form of the element from the much rarer and more radioactive isotope that can cause a nuclear explosion. It becomes usable in a weapon when about 90 percent or more is the stronger form. Under the 2015 agreement, Iran was limited to less than 4 percent enrichment, enough to fire a nuclear power plant.

Mr Blinken said that “with every day that goes by, Iran continues to take measures that are inconsistent with the agreement – specifically building larger supplies of highly enriched uranium to 20 percent, even 60 percent, and turning faster centrifuges” its nuclear program is progressing to the point where it cannot be easily reversed.

Mr Blinken and other Biden administration officials have repeatedly declined to say how much time remains or what specific metrics they could use to assess the 2015 framework cannot be salvaged.

He and Foreign Ministry Envoy to Iran Robert Malley held consultations with allies on the matter in New York this week, but left with no specific date to return for talks in Vienna. The difficulty of their task was underscored on Tuesday in a fiery address by the new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi before the United Nations, who condemned the US as an international tyrant.

In two conversations – one Thursday night with New York Times journalists and another Friday morning with a larger group of American reporters – Amirabdollahian turned down several opportunities to explain why Iran is now producing nuclear fuel for the first time that is close to Bomb class. His staff said producing the fuel at 60 percent purity was largely a political statement, a sign that Iran was planning to exercise all of its rights as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – which allows it to produce the fuel , but forbids taking the last steps to turn it into a weapon.

However, they found that highly enriched uranium could be used in marine reactors, suggesting that they might want to use it for this purpose. And they cited Mr Biden’s new contract with Australia, which requires the US and UK to supply Australia with the technology for nuclear-powered submarines that use highly enriched uranium. Australia is not seen as a proliferation threat, but for the Iranians this is largely evidence of double standards.

Mr Amirabdollahian provided a rare example of harmony with American diplomacy by calling on Afghanistan’s new Taliban administration to protect the rights of religious and ethnic groups. The Shiite-led Iranian government has tried to protect the Shiite Hazara minority in Afghanistan, who suffered massacres by the Taliban when the Sunni militant group last ruled Afghanistan.

“We firmly believe that the only solution is to form an inclusive government to move forward,” Amirabdollahian said of Afghanistan. “We are in contact with all sides.”


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