Iran foreign minister: If U.S. wants new nuclear concessions, we do, too

The New York Times – Iran’s foreign minister rejected on Thursday any new negotiation with the United States over extending the length or conditions of the 2015 nuclear accord, saying that Iran would talk about changing the accord only if every concession it made — including giving up nuclear fuel — were reconsidered.

In an interview, the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said that would mean Iran would retake possession of the stockpile of nuclear fuel it shipped to Russia when the accord took effect.

“Are you prepared to return to us 10 tons of enriched uranium?,” Mr. Zarif said of the relinquished stockpile — one of Iran’s biggest concessions — about 98 percent of the country’s nuclear fuel holdings.

Under the agreement, Iran retains an amount of enriched uranium too small to make a single atomic weapon.

Mr. Zarif, who was educated in the United States, spoke with reporters, columnists and editorial writers for The New York Times, a day after he conferred privately with counterparts from the six countries that negotiated the deal with Iran — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York.

It was the first time Mr. Zarif had met with Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, who has said the United States wants to “revisit” what he described as flaws in the accord even as he acknowledged Iran is abiding by its terms.

Mr. Zarif, who negotiated details of the Iran accord with then-Secretary of State John Kerry, dismissed the Trump administration as “seriously ill-informed” about the limits on Iran contained in the deal.

He described President Trump’s speech to the United Nations on Tuesday, in which Mr. Trump called the nuclear accord a one-sided embarrassment to the United States that he may abandon, as “absurd.”

What the administration really wanted, Mr. Zarif said, was to keep the Iranian concessions while trying to extract more from Iran — but with no new concessions from the United States or other parties. That kind of position, he said, contradicted the premise of any negotiated deal.

“By definition, a deal is not perfect, because in any deal you have to give and take,” he said. “Otherwise you won’t have a deal.”

He further dismissed the idea of an addendum to the agreement to address the Trump administration’s objections, an idea that American officials say has been floated within the administration as a possible diplomatic way forward.

“Why should we discuss an addendum?,” Mr. Zarif said. “If you want to have an addendum, there has to be an addendum on everything.”

Mr. Trump has strongly hinted he is prepared to “decertify” Iran’s compliance with the deal, even while Mr. Tillerson, speaking to reporters after his encounter with Mr. Zarif on Wednesday evening, acknowledged that Iran is in “technical compliance.”

Under an American law, a decertification would not terminate the deal, unless Congress voted to reimpose nuclear-related economic sanctions against Iran — which would violate the terms of the accord.

The White House has been divided about how to proceed against Iran, with Mr. Tillerson arguing that to tear up the Obama-era agreement would alienate allies and empower Iran to resume production of nuclear fuel.

Nonetheless, both Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson contend that Iran has violated the “spirit” of the nuclear accord by continuing to sponsor groups that the United States regards as terrorist organizations, supporting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and pursuing cyber attacks against Iran’s Sunni Arab neighbors and the United States.

Mr. Zarif said those complaints were all beyond the scope of the agreement struck in July of 2015, a position shared by other parties to the accord except the United States.

And the Iranian minister, who was harshly criticized in Iran for surrendering too much in the negotiation, said that if the United States walked away from the accord, as Mr. Trump threatened, “Who would come and listen to you anymore?”

With such a threat, he said, “The United States is sending the wrong signal.”

Iranian officials seem to be betting that Mr. Trump, for all his criticism of the accord, will not blow it up. Washington has already run into resistance to any effort to reopen the terms, and Europeans have privately told the United States they will not reimpose nuclear sanctions on Iran even if the Americans do, undercutting any leverage Mr. Trump might hope to achieve.

Mr. Zarif said he was heartened that during a meeting of all the participants in the meeting on Wednesday evening at the United Nations Security Council, “everybody, with one exception, said this is a good deal.” The “one” was a clear reference to Mr. Tillerson.

In fact, after the Wednesday night meeting, the foreign minister of Germany, Sigmar Gabriel, speaking in German outside the Security Council, told reporters: “To cancel this agreement would send a very negative signal. It will be much more difficult to find a diplomatic solution to other conflicts about nuclear proliferation, notably North Korea.”

Iran analysts who have followed the course of the nuclear agreement said it is facing the most turbulent time since its inception. Still, some saw reason to believe the agreement could survive and outlive the Trump administration.

“Trump has an established pattern of shock and awe opening positions in negotiations, only to later back off or end up in the middle,” Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said in an emailed advisory to clients on Thursday.

“If he holds to hard-line demands, possibly including permanent restrictions on Iran’s program, the deal may well fall apart — and blame would lie right on Washington’s front porch,” Mr. Kupchan said. “That’s an outcome the U.S. doesn’t want.”