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Biden ready to discuss sanctions only after Iran starts talking

The Biden administration will be ready to consider some sanctions relief for Iran only after talks between the parties resume and only as part of a reciprocal process, senior State Department officials told me.

Why it matters: So far, U.S. efforts to re-engage with Iran have met with a cool response from Iranian leaders. The Biden administration is still looking for ways to start a dialogue with Iran — even if it's only indirect talks.

  • The Iranians say the time is not right to meet with the U.S., even informally, and are demanding that the U.S. unilaterally remove nuclear related sanctions before they return to full compliance with the nuclear deal. Biden is not prepared to meet that request.

What they're saying: “Possible U.S. steps with regard to sanctions can be on the table but we need to get into a conversation with Iran, whether direct or indirect," a senior state department official said.

  • "The president will not take unilateral steps when it comes to removing sanctions. Any substantial move by the U.S. will have to be part of a process in which both sides take actions."

Driving the news: State Department envoy for Iran Rob Malley told me in an interview that the U.S. has made clear to Iran it is ready to engage in a serious diplomatic process to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the Iran nuclear deal. 

  • “Our view is that direct talks are more effective and less prone to misunderstanding, but for us the substance is more important than the format”, Malley said.

Behind the scenes: A senior State Department official said the Biden administration wasn’t surprised by Iran’s tough position.

  • The official said the Trump administration made several requests to meet with their Iranian counterparts, but Iran made clear it would not meet until the U.S. provided some sanctions relief. “That remains their position,” the official said.
  • The Biden administration’s position on the sanctions and the fact Biden didn’t rush back into the deal surprised and disappointed the Iranians, the State Department official said.
  • Nevertheless, the U.S. position remains that it is prepared to resume full compliance with the deal if Iran does, “and we are ready to engage in meaningful diplomacy to get there,” the official said.

The State Department Iran team is slowly taking shape. Malley recruited nuclear weapons and sanctions expert Richard Nephew as his deputy. Nephew was a member of the U.S. negotiations team during the talks that led to the 2015 deal.

  • Another member of the Biden administration’s Iran team is Jarret Blanc, who led the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal under then-President Barack Obama. The team is expected to grow more.
  • Malley told me the internal discussions on Iran in the administration include a range of views on the way forward. “For every person I speak to who agrees with me I try to speak to another person who does not,” he said.

What’s next: Once talks with Iran resume, State Department officials believe one of the sticking points will be a difference of interpretation between the U.S. and Iran on what it means to go back to full compliance of the nuclear deal and what each side has to do.

  • “Those will have to be negotiated. That’s why we expect there could be difficult talks, even as we both agree on the goal, and even as we agree on a roadmap to get there,” the State Department official told me.

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