Iran on Thursday signaled a willingness to engage in diplomacy to defuse tensions with the United States with a modest offer on its nuclear program.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters in New York that Iran could immediately ratify a document prescribing more intrusive inspections of its nuclear program if the United States abandoned its economic sanctions.
The document, known as the Additional Protocol, gives UN inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) more tools to verify that a nuclear program is peaceful.
While US officials suggested they viewed the idea as a non-starter, analysts said it could provide an opening for US President Donald Trump's administration to pursue diplomacy.
"If Trump wants more for more, we can ratify the Additional Protocol and he can lift the sanctions he set," Zarif told reporters at the Iranian mission to the UN in New York.
Under the 2015 nuclear deal – known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran must seek ratification of the protocol eight years after the deal was adopted. That would be the same time that the United States must seek permanent termination of many of its sanctions on Iran.
He noted that in 2023, under the JCPOA, Iran’s Parliament, the Majlis, was supposed to ratify the Additional Protocol. As part of the JCPOA, Iran already observes the Additional Protocol. Ratification by the Majlis would make it a more permanent commitment.
At the same time, under the JCPOA, the US Congress was due to lift sanctions on Iran.
Zarif signaled that Iran was willing to do a deal that did not necessary involve the US returning to the JCPOA.
Zarif proposed that Iran and the US take those steps immediately.
He insisted that his offer was “a substantial move”.
“It’s not about photo ops. We are interested in substance,” he said. “There are other substantial moves that can be made.”
He said: “If they [the Trump administration] are putting their money where their mouth is, they are going to do it. They don’t need a photo op. They don’t need a two-page document with a big signature.”
Iran has faced a steadily tightening US-driven oil embargo and severe banking sanctions since May last year, when Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran.
The embargo has triggered a standoff in the Persian Gulf that has escalated dramatically in recent months.
Iran hopeful about de-escalation
Zarif credited Trump with “prudence” for calling off missile attacks last month in reprisal for the downing of a US spy drone, and said that gave him confidence that diplomatic progress is possible.
He said Trump “exercised prudence by not agreeing to suggestions that were made to him to retaliate,” adding that: “In my view he received information that no war with Iran would be a short war.”
He said: “I believe we were few minutes away from a war. Prudence prevailed and we’re not fighting. So that gives reason for us to be optimists. If we work, if we are serious, then we can find a way forward.”
“I have every reason for optimism otherwise I wouldn’t be alive,” Zarif said.
“We live in a very dangerous environment. The United States has pushed itself and the rest of the world into probably the brink of an abyss,” Zarif said.
Zarif also said that Iran could reverse recent moves to surpass uranium enrichment limits set by the JCPOA.
“We are moving forward but that could be reversed as soon as the other side is prepared to implement its commitment,” he said, referring to US sanctions imposed on Iran.
Heavyweights China and Russia are calling for de-escalation. French President Emmanuel Macron has made efforts to ease tensions, talking to both Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Trump.
“We will talk to the French, the Japanese, others. If they have anything of substance, we will listen,” he said. Macron “is trying to reduce tension,” Zarif said.
Zarif also accused the Trump administration of trying to “starve” his people through sanctions and declared that Iran would not bow: “We will survive. We will prosper – long after President Trump is gone – because we have 7,000 years of proof of that.”
Reactions to offer
US officials responded skeptically, suggesting it was an effort to get sanctions relief.
But former US officials saw a diplomatic opening.
"If the foreign minister has suggested that the Majlis would ratify the Additional Protocol now, that is a serious step," said Wendy Sherman, a former official of Barack Obama’s administration who negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal.
"Of course, Iran will want something serious in return. Nonetheless, a creative opening," she added.
Richard Nephew, a former US official now at Columbia University, said Zarif surely knew Washington would reject his idea. But he said it signaled Iran wants a diplomatic solution and suggested Iran has no intent to throw out IAEA inspectors.
"The administration ought to use this as an opportunity to talk seriously internally about what it wants and to test the Iranian position, but I doubt that they will," he said.
The Guardian, Reuters and AP contributed to this story.