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Ex-Iranian Diplomat: Revived Nuclear Talks Must Start with U.S. Lifting of Crippling Sanctions

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The United States and Iran are holding more indirect talks as part of a push to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, after former President Donald Trump pulled out of the accord nearly three years ago. The two countries agreed to set up two expert-level working groups along with other signatories of the 2015 deal, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. While Iran formally remains in the JCPOA, it has faced international criticism for increasing production of nuclear materials it says are for peaceful purposes. The United States has imposed some 1,600 different sanctions on Iran in a move that has also made it harder for Iranians to import food and medicine, a situation that became even more dire during the pandemic. The main hurdle to reviving the nuclear deal is doubt over the U.S. commitment to diplomacy, says Seyed Hossein Mousavian, Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at Princeton University and former spokesperson for Iran on its nuclear negotiations with the European Union. “The U.S. needs to do some serious steps to revive the trust,” Mousavian says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States and Iran have begun indirect talks as part of a push to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Former President Donald Trump pulled out of the accord nearly three years ago. On Tuesday, Iran and the United States began indirect talks in Vienna and agreed to set up two expert-level working groups along with other signatories of the 2015 deal, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. State Department spokesperson Ned Price described the talks as the, quote, “start of a process” and said the Biden administration is prepared to lift sanctions on Iran.

NED PRICE: When it comes to sanctions, the point I made before remains. We are prepared to take the steps necessary to return to compliance with the JCPOA, including by lifting sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States has imposed some 1,600 different sanctions on Iran in a move that’s made it hard for Iranians to import food and medicine. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told Press TV the lifting of the sanctions must happen before the nuclear deal is revived.

ABBAS ARAGHCHI: If the U.S. is serious, they should be prepared to lift all sanctions that they have imposed or reimposed against Iran. And after verification, we’ll certainly go back to full compliance. If we wanted to avoid full compliance to the JCPOA, we would have done it before. We would have totally withdrawn from the JCPOA once the U.S. administration — the previous U.S. administration left the JCPOA. So, we are quite serious. Nobody can question Iran’s goodwill. The JCPOA is alive because of Iran, and we have paid a heavy price for that.

AMY GOODMAN: While Iran formally remains in the JCPOA, it’s faced international criticism for increasing production of nuclear materials, though it maintains the production is for peaceful purposes. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the nuclear deal Wednesday. His comments came a day after Israel attacked an Iranian ship in the Red Sea.

We’re joined by Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at Princeton University. From 2003 to 2005, he served as spokesperson for Iran in its nuclear negotiations with the European Union. He’s the author of several books, including Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace. His most recent book, A New Structure for Security, Peace, and Cooperation in the Persian Gulf.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you back, Ambassador. Can you start by just explaining the scene in Vienna right now? You have the U.S. at one hotel, Iran at another hotel, and countries and the European Union shuttling back and forth. What are they negotiating this week?


Actually, the problem with the current negotiation is that since the U.S. broke the promise, practically the U.S. killed the trust on the Iranian side, because after 12 years of negotiation, Iran and the U.S., Iran and the world powers, they agreed in 2015 on a deal, which is the most comprehensive agreement during the history of nonproliferation. It was working very well, and Iran delivered completely every promise within the deal. Iran was in full compliance, with zero failure. And the U.S. withdrew, imposed — not only reimposed the nuclear sanctions, but the U.S. imposed the most comprehensive sanctions ever, after the revolution.

Therefore, Iranians, frankly speaking, they think they have been deceived by the U.S. They have accepted the most comprehensive commitments during the history of nonproliferation. They have implied — they have complied perfectly. In reward, they have received the most comprehensive sanctions ever, after the revolution. Therefore, they are coming back to nuclear negotiations with complete mistrust and the feeling of misled and deceived.

That’s why it’s really important, if the U.S. wants to revive the nuclear deal, since the U.S. killed the deal, they have to lift the sanctions first. Iran would be ready to come to full compliance. Here, there is a big difference: Iran is a member of JCPOA; the U.S. is not. Iran is at least implementing 50% of the JCPOA; the U.S. is at zero implementation. And the U.S. is really the country who killed the deal. That’s why the U.S. needs to do some serious steps to revive the trust and to fill the gap already has been created by President Trump.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ambassador Mousavian, could you explain why it is that U.S. and Iranian officials are not meeting directly but using intermediaries, the European signatories to the JCPOA? And also explain what “compliance for compliance” means. This is a key phrase that’s been used in the negotiations. What does that entail?

SEYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: First of all, Iranians and Americans, they negotiated directly for the first time after revolution in 2013 at a very high level. The foreign ministers, they met, they negotiated, and they played a key role to creating — for creating such a deal. The deal practically could never come to a final stage in the absence of Iran-U.S. direct negotiations. Therefore, Iranians already came to negotiation with the U.S., and they accepted the measures, transparency measures, and the limits, which no other NPT member has ever accepted during the history of Nonproliferation Treaty, NPT. And they delivered. It was the Iranian goodwill. They wanted to show that they are not after a nuclear bomb, and they are ready to accept measures which no other country has ever accepted on transparency measures.

But because the U.S. killed the deal, now the Iranians, they say, “Look, what is the benefit of negotiating with the U.S.?” If you negotiate, if you accept the highest level of commitments no other country has ever accepted, if the United Nations Security Council adopts a resolution about the deal, if the International Atomic Energy Agency adopts many resolutions to support the deal, and even if you deliver your commitments, then the U.S. would reward you with the most comprehensive sanctions. Therefore, negotiating with the U.S. is baseless. That’s why they have really lost the trust.

Second, “compliance for compliance” means that, first of all, the U.S., during President Obama, was really serious to implement the deal. But even during President Obama, the United States was not in position for full compliance because of primary and secondary sanctions before the nuclear deal. However, Iran remained committed and implemented 100%, while, during President Obama, the U.S. was implementing 30% because of the primary and secondary sanctions.

Now, President Trump withdrew and imposed not only nuclear sanctions, hundreds of other sanctions, far, far, far beyond nuclear. Therefore, now Iranians say, “Look, we showed our full commitment for full compliance for three years nonstop with zero failure. It was you that even you were not able to comply with your commitments during President Obama because of the primary sanctions. Now we have an ocean of new sanctions by President Trump. Therefore, we need to see you would really lift the sanctions.”

Compliance from the U.S. side is lifting the sanctions. And compliance from the Iranian side is to continue to accept the measures within the JCPOA, which is the most intrusive inspections among all NPT members and the most limits on Iranian nuclear program, like cap on 20% or 90% or 60% enrichment, cap to below 5%, cap to a stockpile, and a lot of other commitments. Therefore, Iranians need to go back to full compliance. It means, currently, they are complying with 50%; they need to go back from 50 to 100. And the U.S. needs to start from 0 to 100. This is compliance for compliance.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ambassador Mousavian, you mentioned primary sanctions that were in place before the Trump administration, and you’ve written also in a piece earlier this year, in addition to saying right now, that primary sanctions must be abolished. Could you explain what those sanctions are, and to whom and what they apply, and how they differ from the hundreds and hundreds of sanctions that the Trump administration then imposed?

SEYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: See, before the nuclear deal, the previous U.S. administrations imposed sanctions, like sanctioning Iranian oil, sanctioning investment on Iranian oil industry, many other sanctions under the umbrella of terrorism or human rights, and so and so. That’s why those sanctions practically blocked any economic relation between the U.S. and Iran. Iran was ready to continue economic relations, trade relations with the U.S. But it was the U.S., because of the sanctions, that practically blocked any trade with Iran.

However, there are some sanctions even before the nuclear deal that the U.S. had decided for exterritorial imposing sanctions. It means if the other countries are going to make business with Iran, the U.S. would not make business with them. That’s why these are the problems before the nuclear deal. When they came to nuclear deal, based on JCPOA, there is a clear statement in JCPOA saying the signatories, the P5+1, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, they would not do anything to impede normal trade business between other countries and Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador —

SEYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: Therefore — therefore, the primary sanctions practically blocked the normal trade business between the other countries and Iran. That’s why we are saying the primary sanctions are a problem. The nuclear sanctions are a problem. Strong sanctions are a problem. That’s why I believe the current U.S. nuclear team now in Vienna, headed by Robert Malley, they have a really, really difficult — they are in a very difficult situation, because they have a lot of sanctions which, based on JCPOA, they have to lift it in order to make normal trade business between Iran and the other countries possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the real effects of the sanctions on the Iranian people? In headlines today, we read that Iran recorded its highest-ever daily rate of infections for another day, 21,000 confirmed cases. There’s 84 million Iranians. Only 200,000 vaccine doses have been administered. How do these sanctions affect the health of the people of Iran?

SEYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: Actually, this has been really a disaster. Thousands of people, they have been — they have lost their lives because of the shortage of medicine and medical assistance. Medical equipment in the hospitals, there are huge shortage. Medicine from all over the world, they cannot export medicine to Iran because of the U.S. financial sanctions. And now Iran has the most difficult situation with corona, because Iran cannot import any vaccine. Iran cannot import anything to save the life of thousands or tens of thousands of Iranians struggling with corona. Therefore, this is really a humanitarian disaster created by President Trump. Unfortunately, frankly speaking, up to now, President Biden has not been able to remove any humanitarian sanctions, even for Iran to import the vaccines. Therefore, Iranians now, they say President Biden practically is following President Trump’s strategy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And before we conclude, Ambassador Mousavian, could you also comment on the attack on an Iranian military vessel in the Red Sea on Tuesday, which is, of course, the day that these talks began? Both Iranian and U.S. officials suggested that this attack would give credence to those who are opposed to renewing the nuclear deal, to the U.S. returning. What countries are opposed to the deal? Americans and Iranians, in a recent poll, the majority of people in both these countries have expressed support for the deal.

SEYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: Yes, majority Iranians, they support; majority Americans, they support; majority international community, they support. There are only two, three countries which they oppose. First of all, in the U.S., we have hawks. You know them. I don’t need to introduce to you. However, Israel is the enemy number one of the nuclear deal.

The reason is very simple. The reason is that Israel has tens of nuclear bombs, and they want to prevent any other country, even for peaceful nuclear technology, because if they have enrichment, and if later they decide they can have nuclear bomb — Israel has nuclear bomb. Israel is not member of the Nonproliferation Treaty. Israel does not let any inspection for to the IAEA to inspect its nuclear facility, while Iran is a member of the NPT, Iran does not have a nuclear bomb, and Iran is the most inspected country among all the member states of the Nonproliferation Treaty. Still, Israelis are blaming Iran. This is really a joke for international relations for nonproliferation. A country with nuclear bombs is blaming a country which does not have nuclear bomb, is committed to NPT, has accepted the most comprehensive transparency measures and is the most inspected country in the world on the nuclear issue. That’s why Israelis, they have done everything from the day one to kill the nuclear deal.

Now Biden is going to retell. They are attacking Iranians in Syria, they are attacking Iranians in the oceans, in order to force Iran to retaliate, because they believe if the Iranians, they would retaliate, would attack the Israelis, then they would be able to drag the U.S. in a military war with Iran. This is the main objective.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador, we want to thank you so much for spending this time. Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian, Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at Princeton University, most recent book, A New Structure for Security, Peace, and Cooperation in the Persian Gulf.

Next up, we speak to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jody Williams about the Biden administration’s decision to leave in place a Trump-era policy allowing military commanders to use landmines across the globe. Stay with us.

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