Iran's foreign minister said he hopes Japan and the European Union will persuade newly inaugurated US President Joe Biden to lift sanctions imposed on Tehran by his predecessor Donald Trump.
Mohammad Javad Zarif's made the remarks in an interview with Kyodo News.
Calling Japan an old friend of Iran and noting Tokyo’s good relations with Washington, he said, "We expect Japan to act as a friend, particularly when it comes to international law" – saying that sanctions reimposed after Washington left the landmark nuclear deal in 2018 are illegal.
"Since the United States is violating international law, the best role that Japan can play is to show Americans that Japan will not implement their illegal decisions," he added.
Zarif specifically called on Japan to unfreeze Iranian assets frozen in Japanese banks due to US sanctions, as a gesture to Iran by the new government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who came to power last September.
According to Zarif, frozen assets in Japan and South Korea total are close to $10 billion. Japan's share – mainly revenue from crude oil exports to Japan – is estimated to be just under $3 billion.
On the role of the European Union, Zarif stressed EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell's responsibility to sequence a restoration of compliance with the nuclear accord by Washington and Tehran.
But the foreign minister ruled out direct negotiations with the Biden administration to that end.
"Mr. Borrell can specify the timeframe in consultation with Iran and the United States. It is clear the United States has to take steps first," Zarif said.
"When Washington takes its steps, and we see the outcome, we can immediately take (steps) ourselves, and it is up to Borrell to choreograph these steps," he said.
With the inauguration of the Biden administration on Jan. 20, expectations have been raised for an improvement.
But so far, both sides have urged the other to act first.
The US side wants Iran, which has been strengthening uranium enrichment in response to the US withdrawal and E3 failure to honor its nuclear commitments, to resume full compliance with it.
It also seeks to lengthen and to strengthen the provisions of that deal, using it in turn as a platform to negotiate follow-on agreements to address such concerns as Iran's ballistic missile program.
Zarif, however, said the deal cannot be renegotiated.
He warned the window of opportunity to resolve the impasse will soon close as Iran's Parliament has set Feb. 21 as the day to end nuclear watchdog inspections beyond the country's obligations under its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"A law has been passed by Parliament. That law has to be implemented," he said while pressing Biden's team to decide soon whether to return to the nuclear deal with Iran or continue Trump's legacy by not quickly lifting sanctions.
After that window closes, Zarif said, Iran will produce more enriched uranium and further promote its nuclear development.
Under the deal struck with six major powers – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States – Iran agreed to curb its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
Since 2019, a year after Trump withdrew the United States from the accord struck under his predecessor Barack Obama, Iran has downgraded its commitments, resulting in an increase in its nuclear fissile purity up to 20 percent and installation of new generation and speedy subterfuges in its underground facilities.
Zarif called that a natural outcome of Trump's failed "maximum pressure" policy on Iran and added, "If President Biden wants to continue the same legacy, he will not be able to produce miracles."
Biden told CBS News last week that he would not lift sanctions first in order to get Iran back to the negotiating table and that Iran needs to stop uranium enrichment beyond levels agreed to in the nuclear deal.
But Iran's Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei emphasized later that sanctions must be lifted first and said this is Tehran's "final and irreversible" policy.
The focus will be on whether Japan and Europe can act as intermediaries and find clues to get out of the current predicament.
Zarif expressed his willingness to meet with senior Japanese government officials, saying, "They can raise whatever they want to raise with me, and I will respond to them based on Iranian policy and based on longstanding friendship between Iran and Japan."
A senior Russian diplomat called for “real progress” on the implementation of the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal, stressing the need for the relevant parties to race against time in the coming weeks to save the agreement.
Russia’s Permanent Representative to the International Organizations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov on Tuesday shared a tweet a day earlier by his Iranian counterpart, Kazem Gharibabadi, which said Tehran had informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of its decision to take a set of new retaliatory nuclear measures as of February 23, Press TV reported.
Iran’s ambassador to Vienna-based international organizations had said, “Act of Parliament will be executed on time (Feb. 23) and the IAEA has been informed today to ensure the smooth transition to a new course in due time.”
Gharibabadi was referring to a law passed by the Iranian Parliament last December requiring the government to stop implementing the Additional Protocol, which allows snap visits by the IAEA of Iran’s nuclear facilities, among other things.
Reacting to the Iranian diplomat’s announcement, Ulyanov said “that means that Additional Protocol will continue to apply to IAEA (the International Atomic Energy Agency) activities in Iran for additional 2 days,” referring to February 21, the deadline set by Iran for the lifting of unilateral US sanctions before the execution of the Parliament’s law.
“Not many, but now when we face race against time, every day counts,” the Russian official said in his tweet.
He then called for “real progress” concerning the implementation of the Iran deal, officially named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) before the start of the new Persian calendar year, which begins on March 21.
Tehran started reducing its nuclear commitments in May 2019, exactly a year after the US unilaterally left the JCPOA, as the European signatories failed to confront the sanctions that Washington reimposed on the Islamic Republic in the aftermath of its withdrawal.
Iran’s measures – which will be largely intensified by the parliamentary law – conform to Article 26 and Article 36 of the JCPOA, which deals with Tehran’s legal rights in case of non-compliance on the part of other signatories.
Tehran says it will retrace its nuclear countermeasures only after the United States lifts its sanctions.