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The U.S. And Iran Are Stalled On Who Takes First Steps To Revive Nuclear Negotiations

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In 2018, President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal. Now, both the U.S. and Iran say they want to get back in. But that would take the U.S. lifting sanctions which have hurt Iran's economy and Iran cutting back its nuclear program. And they're stuck on the question of who goes first. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports the U.S. wants to start with talks.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, is the same person who reached out to Iran quietly during the Obama administration, setting the stage for the talks that led to the 2015 nuclear deal. Here's how he describes the current state of play.

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JAKE SULLIVAN: Diplomacy with Iran is ongoing, just not in a direct fashion at the moment.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been trying to reassure members of Congress that the Biden administration won't lift sanctions too soon. But he says the U.S. wants to talk to Iran and tried to when the European Union offered to host a meeting.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: We immediately said yes. The Iranians have said no. And the ball is in their court to see if they're interested in pursuing diplomacy. We are.

KELEMEN: Iran's foreign minister calls the U.S. the offending side since it pulled out of the deal. And, he says, the U.S. must take corrective measures without talks where he suspects the U.S. will try to change the deal. For the moment, things look to be at an impasse, says Suzanne DiMaggio of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She's long been involved in informal talks with Iran.

SUZANNE DIMAGGIO: The Biden administration wants to meet first. The Iranians want some economic relief first. These dug-in positions are driven by domestic politics in both countries, with neither side wanting to appear weak.

KELEMEN: In the U.S., critics point out that parts of the deal start phasing out in the next few years, and it never addressed concerns about Iran's advanced missile program or support for militant groups in the region. In Iran, many gave up hope on the deal when Trump pulled out and deprived them of the economic benefits they expected. Iran has elections in June that hard-liners could win. DiMaggio thinks the Biden administration needs to act soon if it wants to get back to the deal that it argued was working - limiting Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

DIMAGGIO: Whenever they decide to rip this Band-Aid off, they're going to face deep criticism. The later they wait, the harder this is going to become.

KELEMEN: She thinks it's time for a creative icebreaker. The U.S. could, for instance, allow South Korea to release Iranian accounts that were frozen under the Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign. Iran could reverse some of the steps it has taken recently that violate terms of the nuclear deal.

DIMAGGIO: These steps could be initiated simultaneously, solving the who-goes-first dilemma. And it then could present a path for Iran to accept the E.U.'s invitation to meet with the United States, and then talks could get started.

KELEMEN: Former U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman used to say that diplomacy with Iran is as complicated as solving a Rubik's cube. She's been tapped as deputy secretary of state. The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jim Risch, is worried that those who worked on the deal previously are going to give away too much now just to get back into talks with Iran.

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JIM RISCH: We're rewinding the movie and going to show the movie again. And that's not going to work. We know that won't work.

KELEMEN: Biden administration officials say they believe the deal can work, with the U.S. allowing Iran to do business again and Iran scaling back its nuclear program. They call it the compliance for compliance approach. The question is, who complies first?

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAY HI'S "MAURINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.