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Iran Demands U.S. Lift Sanctions Before It Reenters Nuclear Deal

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Back to the table, maybe. President Biden has signaled that America is willing to join Iran and other world powers in talks that would be aimed at returning to the 2015 nuclear agreement. But so far, Iran hasn't been enthusiastic. Iranian leaders say they have a precondition that all U.S. sanctions against Iran must be lifted unconditionally. NPR's Peter Kenyon has been following the story from Istanbul. Thanks for being with us, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: What step are we in what amounts to a diplomatic dance?

KENYON: Yeah, well, basically, Iran has been watching Biden reverse some Trump moves, one on international sanctions on Iran, also easing travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats. And it's all part of his push to let the world know that with Trump gone, America is back, when it comes to international diplomacy, at least, and working with allies. But those sanctions that Trump imposed in 2018, they're still there. And that's a big issue in Tehran. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared Tehran is not interested in words, only actions, in particular on sanctions. And just this morning, a government spokesman was quoted in Iranian media as saying Iran is sure that diplomatic initiatives will result in a favorable outcome despite the diplomatic wrangling. That was a reference to both Washington and Tehran insisting over and over the other side has to go first if there's going to be any more talks. And meanwhile, Iran has 12 times the amount of enriched uranium allowed under the deal now, and it's installing more centrifuges to go even faster.

SIMON: Well, and Iran once said it could return to compliance with the nuclear deal within hours of sanctions being lifted. With so much more activity they've accomplished, would that still be the case?

KENYON: Well, not necessarily. I mean, Khamenei said recently Tehran intends to verify that all sanctions had been properly lifted. It's not clear what that verification would entail or how long it might take. Iran still says it's returning to compliance once sanctions are lifted. But exactly when is a little less clear. And we should note that while Iran has been increasing its uranium enrichment, it's still nowhere near weapons-grade.

SIMON: And the U.S. has indicated it would like to talk about more than just returning to the deal. President Biden says he wants to negotiate on Iran's ballistic missile systems as well. How likely is that?

KENYON: Well, that may be pretty tough. Iran is proud of its missile program. It's been described as the largest in the Middle East outside of Israel. And a top Iranian general has been quoted as saying Iran's not going to negotiate its defensive powers with anybody under any circumstances. And the same goes for Iran's actions in the region. That's another topic Washington has expressed interest in talking about.

SIMON: And a deadline this coming Tuesday, February 23?

KENYON: Yes, Iran says if sanctions are not lifted by then, it will take another step away from the nuclear agreement. And that means not implementing what are known as the additional protocols. And that basically means no more snap inspections by the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency. Now, that would be the biggest move yet away from the deal. And with every step, of course, Tehran moves that much closer to being able to pursue a nuclear weapon if it decides it wants to do that. It says, no, it doesn't. But again, right now, the immediate issue is lifting sanctions. If that happens, then Tehran says all violations of the deal can be reversed.

SIMON: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul, thanks so much.

KENYON: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.