WASHINGTON — The United States took a major step Thursday toward restoring the Iran nuclear deal that the Trump administration abandoned, offering to join European nations in what would be the first substantial diplomacy with Tehran in more than four years, Biden administration officials said.
In a series of moves intended to make good on one of President Joe Biden’s most significant campaign promises, the administration backed away from a Trump administration effort to restore United Nations sanctions on Iran. That effort had divided Washington from its European allies.
And at the same time, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told European foreign ministers in a call Thursday morning that the United States would join them in seeking to restore the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, which he said “was a key achievement of multilateral diplomacy.”
Hours later, Enrique Mora, the European Union’s deputy secretary general for political affairs, appealed to the original signers of the nuclear deal to salvage it from “a critical moment.”
“Intense talks with all participants and the US,” Mora said on Twitter. “I am ready to invite them to an informal meeting to discuss the way forward.”
But it was unclear whether the Iranians would agree. The first obstacle to restoring the deal may be a politically delicate dance of who goes first. And the Biden administration has other goals that include extending and deepening the agreement in an effort to rein in Iran’s growing missile ability and its continued support of terrorist groups and the Syrian government of Bashar Assad.
Biden has said he would lift sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump only if Iran returns to the limits on nuclear production that it observed until 2019.
Under the original 2015 deal, Iran shipped 97% of its nuclear fuel out of the country and agreed to sharp limits on new production that would essentially assure it would take it a year or more to produce enough material for a single weapon. In return, world powers lifted international sanctions that had choked the Iranian economy. But when he came into office, Trump restored American sanctions unilaterally, arguing that the deal was flawed.
Iran has said the United States was the first to violate the terms of the 2015 nuclear accord and it would come back into compliance only after America reversed course and allowed it to sell oil and conduct banking operations around the world. A senior Biden administration official said on Thursday evening that closing that gap would be a “painstaking” process.
The announcement will open what is likely to be a delicate set of diplomatic offerings. A State Department official said the United States had no indication whether Iran will accept the offer, and cautioned that the prospect of a meeting was a first step in what would be a lengthy, difficult process toward restoring the nuclear deal.
The sparring over who moves first will be just the first of many hurdles. And with a presidential election only four months away in Iran, it was not clear if the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the nation’s political and military leadership would fully support re-engagement with the United States.
A second senior Biden administration official said the negotiations would happen if other world powers, including China and Russia, were part of them. That left open the question whether regional powers that were excluded in the last agreement — Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates — would play any role.
The State Department said that Iran must return to full compliance with the deal — as the Biden administration has insisted — before the United States would unwind a number of American economic sanctions that Trump imposed against Tehran, crippling the Iranian economy.
The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said on Twitter that Tehran was waiting for American and European officials to “demand an end to Trump’s legacy of #EconomicTerrorism against Iran.”
“We’ll follow ACTION w/ action,” Zarif tweeted.
Asked whether the United States has already had any preliminary diplomatic communications with Iran, the State Department official did not respond specifically, saying only that the administration had consulted broadly on the subject.
European officials, who more than a year ago formally accused Tehran of violating the deal by compiling and enriching nuclear fuel beyond the limits of the agreement, had largely been left to hold it together. Hoping the agreement would be restored once Trump left office, officials in Britain, France and Germany have delayed enforcing a dispute mechanism to punish Iran for repeatedly breaching the accord since then.