ROME — President Biden and three European leaders sent a clear signal to Iran on Saturday that they are ready to return to the scuttled deal that eased sanctions against the country, in return for Iran limiting its nuclear program and opening it up to inspections.
Biden, outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made it clear in a joint statement, however, that they would not ease sanctions until Iran takes a first step toward ratcheting back efforts that the international community says are aimed at developing a nuclear weapon — an end goal Iran has repeatedly denied.
The leaders were meeting on the sidelines of a G-20 global finance conference here.
"The current situation underscores the importance of a negotiated solution that provides for the return of Iran and the U.S. to full compliance," the leaders said in a joint statement.
The initial Iran nuclear agreement — which provide sanctions relief in exchange for limits on its nuclear program, as well as international inspections — was brokered among the four countries, China, Russia and Iran in 2015.
Former President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal three years later, though, and reinstated harsh sanctions that damaged Iran's economy. Iran responded by revving up work on its nuclear program, past the limits it had previously agreed to.
The leaders said they welcomed "Biden's clearly demonstrated commitment to return the U.S. to full compliance with the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the agreement is called] and to stay in full compliance, so long as Iran does the same."
"We are convinced that it is possible to quickly reach and implement an understanding on return to full compliance and to ensure for the long term that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes," the statement said.
"This will only be possible if Iran changes course," it added. "We call upon [Iranian President Ebrahim] Raisi to seize this opportunity and return to a good faith effort to conclude our negotiations as a matter of urgency. That is the only sure way to avoid a dangerous escalation, which is not in any country's interest."
Biden expressed hope the deal could be patched back together, despite heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S., but initial tentative talks fell apart earlier this year. Iran also elected a more hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi.
An unexpected opening appeared earlier this week, when Iran's deputy foreign minister tweeted that Iran was ready to return to the negotiating table "before the end of November."
The next day, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan announced that Biden and the three European leaders would sidebar at the G-20 to weigh how they'd respond to Iran's move. (Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin did not attend the G-20. It's unclear whether they have been looped in on Saturday's statement.)
Biden appeared to confirm talks will start again, telling reporters during the meeting that "they're scheduled to resume."
Speaking to reporters ahead of the session, and providing unusual candor about how many meetings between world leaders are overly scripted, a senior administration official said Biden, Merkel, Macron and Johnson just needed to get into the same room to discuss the growing threat of an Iranian nuclear program, and whether a return to negotiations would be fruitful.
"This was actually a Merkel initiative," the official said. "These four leaders have not actually had the chance to sit and talk about Iran. And they need to have the private space to have the, you know, no-BS conversation about where we're at and where we need to go."
"It's one of those rare meetings where, actually — a lot of the times the meeting is a bit fake and you have some deliverables. This is more like, this is going to be a serious opportunity to check signals as we head into a really vital period on this issue," the official added.