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Iran Rejects U.S. Offer To Hold Direct Nuclear Talks


The effort to revive U.S. participation in a nuclear agreement with Iran is stuck on the question of who moves first. The United States withdrew from that 2015 agreement and then imposed new sanctions on Iran. Iran then started reducing its compliance with the limits on its nuclear program. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NPR it's time for Iran to back up.


ANTONY BLINKEN: The first step would be Iran returning to compliance. And President Biden's been clear that if they do, we would do the same.

INSKEEP: Iran has wanted the United States to lift its sanctions first and recently rejected an offer by European nations to mediate. So what now? Let's bring in Trita Parsi, who wrote a book on the nuclear agreement, has advocated better U.S.-Iran relations and now works at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Welcome back to the program.

TRITA PARSI: Thank you so much for having me. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Do both sides really want back in the deal?

PARSI: I think they do, without a doubt. I think the Iranians clearly have demonstrated by not walking out of the deal, despite the fact that the U.S. did so under Trump, that they want to stick to the deal. And I think Biden is absolutely serious about wanting to get back into the deal. However, the strategy, I think, has been a little bit confused, mindful of the fact that, you know, we are now stuck on something that, frankly, is quite childish about who goes first. These things have been dealt with effectively in the past behind the scenes without all of these public commentary, you know, putting the onus on the other side. And it should have been that way - done - handled that way this time as well.

INSKEEP: Is it obvious, then, to you how to get started here?

PARSI: It is. At the end of the day, both sides are going to have to accept that there's going to be a political cost that they will have to pay if they want to get a deal. And they want to get a deal because it's a security imperative. It's absolutely essential to the United States that the Iranians do not have a pathway to a nuclear weapon and that we avoid a war over this issue. And, ultimately, it also fits completely with what Biden himself has said that he wants to do. He wants to reduce the focus on the Middle East and be able to shift focus eastwards. For all of that, getting this deal is absolutely imperative.

INSKEEP: Although there's an interesting detail that has come out of the recent difficulty. Iran, as I understand it, said we don't want talks with the United States mediated by the European Union because we want assurances that it's just going to be about reviving U.S. participation in the deal. We don't want to talk about other things. We don't want to talk about our missile program or our behavior in the region, which are exactly the things that the Biden administration will be under pressure to get an agreement with Iran about. Is there a way around that?

PARSI: There is a way around that because, at the end of the day, what the Iranian message has been that they're not going to talk about those things until the United States is back into the deal. Once the U.S. is in the deal, then without a doubt, there's opportunities and possibilities to negotiate what is called add on agreements that would address additional measures on the nuclear front but also potentially then missile program and regional matters. The issue, though, is that the JCPOA needs to first be secured, and it needs to be insulated from those negotiations, meaning that if a negotiation, for instance, on Yemen fails, that should not jeopardize the existence and the continuation of the JCPOA. And I think the Biden administration's position on that actually is the same. They're not talking about talking about Yemen or missiles or other issues before the JCPOA has been restored. The question is is that we've gotten stuck on this silly thing about who goes first.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to think about whether time is urgent here, whether there's really a lot of danger of something going terribly wrong. And I'm just looking at news from the region. Israel alleges that a tanker was attacked by Iran in the Gulf of Oman. Iran denies responsibility for that. President Biden ordered an airstrike in Syria the other day, which was targeting an Iran-backed militia blamed for an attack on Americans in Iraq. Things are happening. Is there a risk of something going very wrong?

PARSI: Absolutely. Not only in the region, but also there are certain things that we know will happen. The Iranians are having their presidential elections in June of this year. This means that by the third week of this month, they will enter their political season, and as a result, it will be very difficult for them to negotiate. And it will probably be quite unattractive for the U.S. to negotiate with a country that is in the midst of its elections. After that, there's a significant likelihood, particularly if nothing positive has happened on the nuclear front, that the next Iranian president will be a conservative, that potentially like Trump in 2016 will run on a platform opposing the JCPOA. So whatever difficulties we're facing now, it will be far more difficult after June, which makes it all the more important to make sure that we get as much progress as possible before the Iranian elections.

INSKEEP: Well, this is very interesting because, as you know very well, Iranians vote for reform-minded people and people who want better relations with the West when they get a chance. We never know just how free and fair the elections really are. And they're, of course, managed by the Iranian regime. But is it not possible that somebody who favors getting back in the deal could win those elections?

PARSI: The possibility, without a doubt, exists. However, we have to keep in mind the Iranian public is deeply disappointed in the JCPOA because the U.S. and Iran struck this deal together with the Europeans. The Iranians have still abided by the vast majority of their obligations. The U.S. pulled out, imposed more sanctions on Iran. In fact, Iran is under more sanctions now when it's still inside a deal than it was before the deal was negotiated.

INSKEEP: Trita Parsi, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

PARSI: Thank you so much for having me.

INSKEEP: He is author of "Losing An Enemy" and also the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.