Iran’s president says US should ease sanctions to demonstrate it wants to return to nuclear deal

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi said Wednesday that relations with the United States can move forward if the Biden administration demonstrates it wants to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, and a first step should be easing sanctions.

He told a news conference that the Americans have reached out through several channels “saying they wish to have a dialogue, but we do believe that it must be accompanied by action.”

“So talk alone is not going to do it,” Raisi said. But action on sanctions can be “a solid foundation for continuing” discussions.

The Iranian leader added: “We have not left the table of negotiations.”

Raisi reiterated that the American withdrawal from the 2015 agreement, aimed at reining in Iran’s nuclear program, trampled on U.S. commitments including on sanctions.

Then-President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of the accord in 2018, restoring crippling sanctions. Iran began breaking the terms a year later, including by enriching uranium to higher levels, and formal talks in Vienna to try to restart the deal collapsed in August 2022.

U.N. nuclear chief Rafael Grossi said in an interview Monday with The Associated Press that the Iranian government’s removal of many cameras and electronic monitoring systems installed by the International Atomic Energy Agency make it impossible to give assurances about the country’s nuclear program.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which Grossi heads, reported earlier this month that Iran had slowed the pace of enriching uranium to nearly weapons-grade levels. That was seen as a sign that Tehran was trying to ease tensions after years of strain with the United States, and one that took place as the rivals were negotiating a prisoner swap and the release of billions in frozen Iranian assets — which all took place Monday.

Grossi has previously warned that Tehran has enough enriched uranium for “several” nuclear bombs if it chose to build them.

Raisi reiterated Wednesday that Iran’s nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, pointing to its use in agriculture, oil and gas infrastructure, and saying “we have enrichment to satisfy those needs.” He said reports that Iran has increased its enrichment levels “are not based in fact.”

The IAEA director general told the AP on Monday that he asked to meet Raisi on the sidelines of this week’s annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly, which both were attending, to try to reverse Tehran’s ban on “a very sizable chunk” of the agency’s nuclear inspectors.

When asked whether he had met Grossi, Raisi responded that he had talked to him in Tehran, in early March — not this week, adding that Iran has had “very good cooperation” with the IAEA.

As for denying future entry to many of the most experienced nuclear inspectors, Raisi said the government was only taking aim at individuals “who may undertake actions aimed at undermining the level of trust” Iran has in them — “not inspections themselves.”

“The inspectors who haven’t shown any reason for a lack of trust, they can certainly continue their pursuits,” he said.

Raisi also criticized last week’s announcement by Britain, France and Germany that they will keep sanctions on Iran that were set to expire in October under the 2015 nuclear deal in response to Tehran’s failure to comply with the 2015 nuclear deal. He called their action “oppressive and unjust and unfair.”

The measures ban Iran from developing ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons and bar anyone from buying, selling or transferring drones and missiles to and from Iran. They also include an asset freeze for several Iranian individuals and entities involved in the nuclear and ballistic missile program.

Iran has been accused by the U.S. and other Western countries of supplying Russia with military drones being used by Moscow in its war against Ukraine. Tehran has denied sending the drones to Russia.

Raisi arrived in New York as Iran and the U.S. each freed five prisoners who were in jails for years on Monday. The U.S. also allowed the release of nearly $6 billion in Iranian frozen assets in South Korea for humanitarian use. The five freed Americans arrived in the U.S. Tuesday.

The Iranian president, in response to a question, thanked Qatar and Oman for their “constructive role as mediators and facilitators” in the prisoner swap, adding that the release of the frozen assets “should have taken place much sooner than it did.”

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