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US promises to stand firm as Iran plays hardball with latest violation of nuclear deal

The administration has said it intends to keep the door open for diplomacy, despite the ban which was announced by Iran’s parliament at the end of last year and is expected to be implemented next week. A readout from a meeting between the US, and the French, German and British — known as the E3 — foreign ministers suggested the firmest commitment yet by the US to engage with Tehran if it returns to full compliance with the deal.

Nonetheless, the likely breach presents another complicating factor in the ongoing impasse between Washington and Tehran — both of whom have insisted that the other move first; another hurdle for the Biden administration’s desire to return to the deal and for the nations hoping to salvage the landmark agreement before it is irreparably damaged.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken met virtually with his E3 counterparts Thursday for the second time in as many weeks. That conversation appeared to be heavily dominated by Iran, according to a joint statement released following the meeting.

“The E3 welcomed the United States’ stated intention to return to diplomacy with Iran as well as the resumption of a confident and in-depth dialogue between the E3 and the United States,” the statement said. “The Ministers affirmed strong interest in continuing their consultations and coordination, including with China and Russia, on this key security issue, recognizing the role of the High Representative of the European Union as Coordinator of the Joint Commission.”

Notably, the statement signaled a clear commitment from the administration to engage with Iran if it returns to compliance with the nuclear deal, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“Secretary Blinken reiterated that, as President Biden has said, if Iran comes back into strict compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA, the United States will do the same and is prepared to engage in discussions with Iran toward that end,” it said.

The statement also raised Iran’s move to suspend short notice inspections allowed under the so-called Additional Protocol.

“In this context, the E3 and the United States called on Iran not to take any additional steps, in particular with respect to the suspension of the Additional Protocol and to any limitations on IAEA verification activities in Iran,” it said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif quickly rejected the US and E3 statement.

“Our remedial measures are a response to US/E3 violations. Remove the cause if you fear the effect We’ll follow ACTION w/ action,” he said on Twitter Thursday, echoing comments from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said this week that words are not enough and demanded that the US take action if they want to revive the nuclear deal. The Biden administration has repeatedly said that Iran must return to compliance first.

‘Path for diplomacy’ remains open

Iran’s likely move away from its obligations under the Additional Protocol of the deal “is a very significant escalation,” according to Henry Rome, a senior Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group.

“This is Iran playing hardball with Biden. Restricting inspectors’ access is something the Iranians did not do during the Trump administration and is essentially the last remaining active part of the JCPOA,” he told CNN.

Former officials had floated the possibility that the administration could make some sort of goodwill gesture to deter Iran from making the step, which is required under a law passed by Tehran’s parliament in December. However, the senior administration official told CNN that this is not expected to happen.

At a press briefing Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price noted that Iran’s move to curb short notice inspections — and Iran’s other violations to date — are reversible.

“Iran should reverse these steps and refrain from taking others that would impact the IAEA assurances on which not only the United States, not only our allies and partners in the region, but the entire world relies,” he said. “Iran should provide full and timely cooperation with the IAEA.”

However, Price said that “the path for diplomacy remains there. We hope to be able to pursue it together with our allies and partners.”

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi “will visit Tehran on Saturday for discussions with senior Iranian officials in order to find a mutually agreeable solution for the IAEA to continue essential verification activities in the country,” a spokesperson for the organization said. “The Director General last week offered to travel to Iran in view of its decision to stop implementing voluntary transparency measures under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as of 23 February, including the Additional Protocol, which would have a serious impact on the IAEA’s verification and monitoring activities in the country.”

A sense of urgency is growing among the Europeans, who privately point out that the world finds itself in this position because the US pulled out of the deal in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump. But for now, they understand the delicate predicament.

“Biden and Blinken cannot give the impression that blackmail works for the US,” the European diplomat said, pointing out that the US will need to get something from Iran if they are going to take small steps to deescalate. “They also need a tangible reward for Congress.”

Ongoing discussions between US officials and their European counterparts have included talk of staged, confidence-building steps both the US and Iran could take to begin a process toward bringing both sides back into the deal, this diplomat said, but “the challenge is to put together elements of de-escalation.”

“What would the US do, A-B-C, and what would Iran do, A-B-C,” they said, describing the ongoing conversations as encouraging because “there is a readiness to put ideas on the table.”

The diplomat also noted the broader regional developments, like the Biden administration’s reversal of a foreign terrorist organization designation of Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran.

“The Houthi designation decision was made on its own merits, but it creates a more positive atmosphere,” they said, adding that the US decision to pull back support for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen had a similar effect. “It may make the Iranians more interested in cooperating.”

Price said Wednesday that “it has not been our intent, nor has it been our strategy, to engage on the challenge of Iran’s nuclear program through the context of Yemen. That is not at all how we see it.”

Next steps remain unclear

Nonetheless, the sequencing and timing of next steps remain unclear.

Rome of the Eurasia Group told CNN that “the issue that the two sides are getting caught up on is who goes first, which is a bit a sideshow.”

“What needs to happen is they need to sit down and negotiate re-entry into the deal. You are not going to move forward in a sustainable way without agreements from both sides about what steps they will take,” he said. “That could get the process going because the ball would then be in Iran’s court.”

Price would not share the Biden administration’s view on the possibility for a gradual return to compliance during the State Department briefing on Wednesday. Earlier this month Iran’s Foreign Minister suggested the European Union’s foreign policy chief could choreograph the moves made by the US and Iran to overcome to current stalemate.

US expresses outrage over Erbil rocket attack as investigation gets underway

On Thursday, coinciding with the US-E3 meeting, EU President Charles Michel spoke to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani to “exchange views” on the JCPOA as well as the economic and social impact of the Covid-19 pandemic — a potential area where the US and EU could make goodwill gestures.

Michel emphasized the important of Iran’s compliance to the JCPOA and EU concern over its expected move to suspend the Additional Protocol, according to a EU statement. He also “indicated that preserving a space for diplomacy, underpinned by positive steps, was crucial at this stage.”

Some experts have expressed concerns that Iran may go too far and push the US and Europeans to the point of no return.

“I think that these steps are clearly a pressure campaign designed to spur the United States to move on sanctions relief then return to the deal. I am concerned, though, that Iran is overplaying its hand with these violations,” said Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association. “And if Iran takes these steps, reducing inspections for instance will create a gap on monitoring on certain activities that would be difficult to reconstitute. It’s not clear that you know the Europeans are going to wait forever in light of these violations and they may feel moved to respond.”

CNN’s Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.

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