Iran says ‘no’ to informal meeting (Updated)

The ‘time is not ripe’ for proposed informal meeting, Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman said. Washington said it was disappointed but still willing to engage.

Photo: Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi speaks in a meeting with Iran's atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. Grossi met with Salehi ahead of Iran's plans to partly suspend United Nations inspections of the country's nuclear facilities. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP).

Iran has informed the European Union that it will not agree to an informal meeting proposed by the EU to try to get the Iran nuclear deal back on track, at least not for now.

“Considering US/E3 positions & actions, time isn't ripe for the proposed informal meeting,” Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh tweeted on Sunday.

Update: The Biden administration said it was disappointed, but remained willing to pursue diplomacy to try to achieve a mutual compliance deal.

“While we are disappointed at Iran’s response, we remain ready to reengage in meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with JCPOA commitments,” a senior U.S. administration official, speaking on background, said by email. “We will be consulting with our P5+1 partners on the best way forward.”

The Iranian rejection of a meeting, which had been considered to be held in person in Brussels, comes after the Biden administration carried out strikes on Thursday (Feb. 25) against a compound in Abu Kamel, Syria that the United States said has served to facilitate Iranian-backed militias which have carried out attacks against the US-led coalition in Iraq.

The Biden administration had previously said it would accept such an invitation, after the EU political director tweeted on February 18 that he proposed an informal meeting of the remaining parties to the Iran nuclear deal,  the United States and Iran.

European Union High Representative Josep Borrell had expressed cautious optimism early last week that intensive efforts to get talks underway to get the deal back on track could soon yield progress.

“We have been working a lot these days, and continue working, in order to make it possible for the the United States to come back to the deal and for Iran to come back to full compliance,” Borrell told the Atlantic Council on a Zoom forum on Feb. 23. “Both things go together.”

“I think it will be possible, we will be working on that,” Borrell continued.

The comments came after the UN atomic watchdog brokered a compromise understanding with Iran on a visit there last weekend on the scope of Iran’s implementation of a parliamentary law to reduce cooperation with the agency in order to buy time for political talks.

“It is our conviction, in doing what we did, we can facilitate a smooth return to the previous situation if that is possible after the consultations that are going to take place,” International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said at a forum hosted by the Nuclear Threat Initiative on Feb. 23. “We facilitated an easier atmosphere and time for the indispensable diplomacy to take place in the coming days in order to bring some stability to the situation that needs it very, very badly.”

Previously, Iran had said it was still considering the EU offer to host informal talks between the remaining parties to the Iran nuclear deal—the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China, and Iran —as well as the United States. The Biden administration had said it would be willing to come to the table to discuss how a compliance for compliance deal would work, under which Iran would return to full compliance with the 2015 accord and the United States would lift sanctions that former US President Trump imposed after he quit the pact in 2018.

But the two sides have publicly argued over who should go first in a return for return deal. The Biden administration says it wants to get to the table to discuss how the sequencing should work. Iran argues the United States should provide some economic relief first because it is the party that reneged on the deal while Iran fully complied with it, even for a full year after Trump left and imposed his “maximum pressure” campaign, which Iran says continues for now under the Biden administration.

“It is not just the strikes; it is the general context in which basically the Iranians believe the administration has not done anything to lift sanctions, even on the humanitarian front,” the Iran expert who frequently confers with the U.S. administration said.

The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani administration “paid a huge price domestically” for the compromise it brokered with the IAEA last weekend, the expert continued. “And now, on top of that, what happened in Syria . . .In general, the mood in Tehran has soured to the degree that I feel they might not agree even to an informal meeting. And as you see, this interregnum is being filled continuously with escalation in the region, making a return to diplomacy more difficult.”

A deadlock has settled in, with President Biden apparently being unwilling to make any economic relief gesture to get to talks, and the Iranians having also boxed themselves in, the expert said.

“My understanding is the President (Biden) reasons, ‘why should I give them anything when they are behaving this way,’” the expert said.

“Both sides are really stuck because they have both adopted positions from which they cannot retreat,” he continued. “Biden has already said there will be no down-payment (to get to talks), and the Iranians would not agree to take negotiations with the Biden Administration seriously in the absence of meaningful sanctions relief.”

“The only way forward at this stage is if the Europeans are willing to play the role of an intermediary—without the Iranians and Americans talking directly,” he proposed.

The United States has expressed flexibility about the format of talks.

The deadlock to get to a possible meeting was already not expected to broken before an IAEA board meeting due to get underway in Vienna this week at which some western parties were reportedly considering some sort of censure of Iran for stopping implementation of the Additional Protocol.

The Persian New Year’s holiday starts on March 21, which some experts said could be another impediment to get diplomacy underway, if there is not already some momentum.

The Wall Street Journal reported the Iranians had rejected the meeting as Diplomatic was publishing.

Update II (March 1, 7:13 a.m.): An Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, said by email:

“Iran did not accept Trump's offer of dialogue because we didn't want to negotiate under the threat of the sanctions. The same is true today. The sanctions regime against Iran remains in place and therefore Iran has no incentive to enter a dialogue with the US. The US who is out of the nuclear deal should make the first move to show that it is sincere in its claim that it intends to return to the deal.”