Iran’s Foreign Minister Proposes Modest Deal to End Impasse With U.S.

Iran’s foreign minister said on Thursday that he was willing to meet with American senators to discuss possible ways out of the nuclear crisis with the Trump administration and, for the first time, floated an opening bid of modest steps that Tehran would be willing to take in return for simultaneous lifting of sanctions President Trump reimposed last year.

The American-educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, would not say whether he was planning to meet Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, who has proposed himself as a quiet emissary to Iran from the Trump administration.

Mr. Zarif, meeting with a group of about 15 reporters at the Iranian mission to the United Nations, one of only three buildings where he is allowed to be while in the United States, was coy about whether he planned to meet with Mr. Paul but said, “I am seeing people from Congress.”

But he insisted he would see Mr. Paul only “as a respected representative,” rather than as an emissary from Mr. Trump or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

John Kerry played the same role for the Obama administration while serving as a senator, before he became President Barack Obama’s secretary of state.

Mr. Zarif’s timing was notable: The Trump administration has sent several signals in recent days that it wants to begin talks with Iran with “no preconditions.”

And for the first time since Mr. Trump abandoned the Obama-era agreement last year, both sides are talking about the need to negotiate, even if each has set out unilateral demands that the other must meet.

At the White House, Mr. Trump seemed to play down reports that he would consider allowing Mr. Paul to negotiate with Iran on the administration’s behalf. “I didn’t appoint him,” the president told reporters.

“All we want to do is have a fair deal,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Zarif also insisted that Iran would never back away from its missile program while the United States arms its Arab adversaries with similar weapons.

Yet he described each of Tehran’s recent steps to escalate its uranium enrichment as carefully calibrated — and said they “could be reversed” if the United States backed away from sanctions that were imposed once Mr. Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018.

And, in a backhanded way, Mr. Zarif even praised Mr. Trump for calling off a military strike in response to Iran’s downing of an American drone last month. Iran contends the drone violated its airspace.

ImageSenator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, has proposed himself as a quiet emissary to Iran from the Trump administration.
CreditErin Schaff for The New York Times

“Prudence prevailed,” Mr. Zarif said.

At the same time, he seemed to wave away the idea that Mr. Trump would negotiate directly with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, in the way that the American president has conducted direct talks with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader.

“They don’t need a photo-op,” Mr. Zarif said. “They don’t need a two-page document with a big signature,” a reference to the Singapore agreement that Mr. Trump hastily signed in June 2018 with Mr. Kim that amounted to more of a statement of principles than any accord. Mr. Trump, following his usual practice, had turned the document around and showed it to the cameras, with large signatures across the bottom.

Until now, Mr. Zarif has said that for the United States to engage in negotiations with Iran, it must first re-enter the nuclear agreement that was signed in 2015. On Thursday, he reiterated the sanctity of that agreement.

“We have a deal,” Mr. Zarif said. “We negotiated with the United States. We didn’t negotiate with Kerry or President Obama. We negotiated with the secretary of state and the president.”

Yet for the first time, he described an offer by Iran that could be the opening for a conversation between two adversaries who face the consequences of Mr. Trump’s decision to upend the agreement.

The proposal — a minor one — would accelerate what the nuclear accord calls “transition day.” That is when Iran formally ratifies an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to allow far more intrusive inspections of the country, including sites that Tehran has never declared as nuclear-related.

In return, Mr. Zarif said, the United States would lift the sanctions Mr. Trump has reimposed, by an act of Congress — making it harder for the president to renege later.

Under the 2015 accord, those steps would not take place until October 2023. And if the United States remains out of the agreement, it would not happen even then.

The offer is all but certain to be rejected by the Trump administration, which describes Iran as increasingly desperate as sanctions take full effect.

Mr. Pompeo has often said that sanctions will only be lifted in return for an agreement that permanently ends Iran’s production of nuclear fuel, limits its missile program to purely defensive weapons and ends its support for terrorist groups.

Mr. Zarif sounded philosophical if nothing came of efforts to restart negotiations.

“We will survive, we will prosper, long after President Trump is gone,” he said, pointing to what he called “7,000 years of proof” of Iran’s survivability.

“Our time slots are in millennia,” he said.

The Treasury Department also issued new sanctions on Thursday against five people and seven businesses that it said provided sensitive material to suspicious parts of Iran’s nuclear program. In a statement, officials said front companies in China and Belgium obtained aluminum and other metals for Iran’s Centrifuge Technology Company, which is involved in Tehran’s uranium enrichment program.

Source: NYT

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