US and allies hold nerve to save nuclear deal in face of Iranian escalation

Current policy is to condemn but avoid doing anything that could close the diplomatic window, diplomats said

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif listens to a speach during the the International Conference on the Legal-International Claims of the Holy Defense in the capital Tehran on February 23, 2021.  / AFP / ATTA KENARE
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In the week since Washington offered to talk with Tehran about reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran has curbed UN monitoring, threatened to boost uranium enrichment and its suspected proxies have twice rocketed Iraqi bases with US soldiers.

In return, the United States and three allies, Britain, France and Germany, have responded with a studied calm.

The response - or lack of one - reflects a desire not to disrupt the diplomatic overture in hopes Iran will return to the table and, if not, that the pressure of US sanctions will keep taking its toll, US and European officials told Reuters.

Iran has repeatedly demanded the United States first ease the US sanctions imposed after former President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in 2018. It would then wind down its own violations of the pact, which began a year after Mr Trump's withdrawal.

"However much they believe the US should lift sanctions first, that's not going to happen," said a US official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

If Iran wants the United States to resume compliance with the deal "the best way and the only way is to get to the table where those things will be discussed," the official added.

Two European diplomats said they did not expect the United States, or Britain, France and Germany - informally known as the E3 - to do more to pressure Iran for now despite what one described as "provocations."

One of the diplomats said the current policy was to condemn but avoid doing anything that could close the diplomatic window.

"We have to tread carefully," said the diplomat. "We have to see whether the E3 can juggle Iran's headlong rush and the US hesitance to see whether we even have a path forward."

The "headlong rush" was a reference to Iran's accelerating violations of the agreement.

In the last week, Iran has reduced co-operation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, including by ending snap inspections of undeclared suspected nuclear sites. In some sign of compromise, Tehran did agree to a temporary technical deal that IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said gives the watchdog "necessary degree of monitoring and verification work."

Also this week, the lawyer of a 30-year-old French citizen named only as Benjamin said Iran had detained a French tourist for nine months.

The detainee’s lawyer, Saeed Dehghan, described the charges against the French tourist held in Iran as “paradoxical,” involving murky security-related accusations.

A report by the UN nuclear watchdog also said Iran has begun enriching uranium to 20 per cent, above the 2015 deal's 3.67 per cent limit, and Iran's supreme leader said Tehran could go to 60 per cent if it wished, bringing it closer to the 90 per cent purity needed for an atomic bomb.

The crux of the deal was that Iran would limit its uranium enrichment programme to make it harder to amass the fissile material for a nuclear weapon - an ambition it has long denied - in return for relief from US and other economic sanctions.

While the United States says it is still investigating rockets fired at Iraqi bases last week that house US personnel, they are suspected of having been carried out by Iranian proxy forces in a long-standing pattern of such attacks.

In a demonstration of the restrained US. stance, State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday that Washington was "outraged" by the attacks but would not "lash out" and would respond at a time and place of its choosing.

The second European diplomat said US leverage was still in place because President Joe Biden had not lifted sanctions.

"Iran has positive signals from the Americans. It now needs to seize this opportunity," this diplomat said.

On Wednesday, spokesman Mr Price told reporters the United States would not wait forever.