Iran on Sunday turned down an offer to negotiate directly with the United States in an informal meeting proposed by Europeans to revive the nuclear deal that President Donald J. Trump left nearly three years ago.
An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said recent actions by Washington and the Europeans have led Iran to conclude that the “time is not right” to hold such talks. His remarks came days after President Biden ordered retaliatory strikes against Iran-backed militias in eastern Syria in connection with recent attacks on American and allied personnel in Iraq.
“Nothing has changed in America’s positions and actions,” said Khatibzadeh in a State Department statement. “The Biden administration has not lifted Trump’s maximum pressure policy or announced its commitments” under the 2015 nuclear deal that Mr Trump gave up.
Mr Biden has said that the United States will return to the deal when Iran returns for the first time to the commitments it made when it was signed. Iran has called for the US to lift all sanctions against it and it has recently taken steps to increase uranium enrichment and restrict international inspectors’ access to its nuclear sites.
This impasse led the European signatories to the agreement to propose an informal meeting in which the Americans would attend as guests and the two sides would be given the opportunity to get involved directly.
Privately, American officials have expressed confidence that timing issues could be resolved, noting that when the nuclear deal went into effect in early 2016, Iran and the United States had put in place a series of well-coordinated actions aimed at addressing who it is is eliminated, take the first step.
But political sensitivities are high.
Mr Biden is aware that Republican opponents of the deal are looking for signs that his new administration is making concessions without receiving anything in return. And Iran has a presidential election in less than four months, which means no Iranian officials want to give in to American will.
So far, Mr Biden has mixed a willingness to re-enter diplomacy with a modest military push back on Iran’s support for proxy militias in Iraq and elsewhere.
Gestures of goodwill included abandoning a failed effort by the Trump administration to re-impose United Nations sanctions prior to the 2015 accord. Mr Trump argued that since Iran has resumed production of nuclear materials at the levels prohibited by the agreement, should these sanctions automatically come back into effect.
The Foreign Ministry also eased travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats who come to the United Nations and accept Europe’s invitation to face-to-face talks.
But then came Mr Biden’s decision to order military strikes on Thursday against several buildings used by the Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah and other groups in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border. The strikes were in response to a February 15 missile attack in northern Iraq that killed a civilian contractor and wounded an American service member and members of coalition forces.
Mr Biden said the strikes are aimed at sending a message to Iran that “you cannot go with impunity – be careful.”
The escalating military tensions coincided with Iran’s deliberations on whether to meet with the Americans, a notion as unpopular among Iranian conservative factions as it is among many Republican leaders in the United States.
A White House spokesman said Sunday the United States was “disappointed” with Iran’s rejection of talks, but “we stand ready to get back to meaningful diplomacy,” Reuters reported.
Henry Rome, a senior analyst who follows Iran for Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy firm, said Iran’s decision reflected in part a desire by its leaders to appear resilient in the face of US pressure.
“This is far from a death knell for negotiations,” he said in an email.
Speaking on Sunday, Khatibzadeh said Iran would respond to both pressure and concessions from Washington in kind.
Iran, he said, will “return to our commitments” if the sanctions are lifted. However, he warned against “reacting appropriately to aggressive actions”.
Mr Rom said the stalemate had made it clear how “chaotic” the business revival could be.
“Even though the general direction of travel is clear,” he said, “Washington and Tehran will zig-zag their efforts to build leverage and take their own domestic policy considerations into account.”
David E. Sanger and Rick Gladstone contributed to the coverage.