By The Washington Post · Karen DeYoung
Because of "recent positions and actions of the U.S. and three European countries," Iran "does not deem the time suitable for holding" the proposed meeting, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a statement Sunday.
Western officials, however, said that Iran's private response late last week to the invitation, extended through the European Union, was more "nuanced" than an outright refusal, and that it sought assurances that the talks would be limited to the nuclear deal called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, it signed in 2015 with the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
"The subtext of the answer is, 'We're going to talk if it's really about the JCPOA, but if you're going to make it a bigger issue, then we'll have to negotiate' " the terms, said an official, one of several from the countries involved who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomacy.
This official and others also emphasized that the Iranian response comes in the context of a meeting Monday of the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose board of governors will receive and make public statements about a quarterly report on Iran's lack of compliance with the nuclear deal.
Iran's response to the E.U. invitation, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, is "all part of the drama for this particular event," the official said.
The Biden administration said 10 days ago that it would accept the E.U. invitation "to discuss a diplomatic way forward on Iran's nuclear program." The talks would mark the first direct meeting between U.S. and Iranian officials since the Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018.
President Joe Biden has said he wants to rejoin the agreement, but that Iran must first return to compliance with its terms, and also agree to negotiations over its ballistic missile program and regional aggression.
Iran has insisted that it would only discuss the nuclear agreement, and that it would return to compliance after the United States takes the first step of lifting Trump-imposed sanctions that have hampered its economy. Administration officials have been holding discussions internally and with allies about partial steps that could be taken to ease U.S. sanctions in return for measures by Iran.
The E.U.-hosted talks were meant to provide a way for both sides to get to the table without first acquiescing to the other's conditions.
Iran's Foreign Ministry statement, reported by the official IRNA news agency, said "there is still no change in the position and actions of the United States, and Biden has not only not abandoned the defeated [Trump] policy of maximum pressure, but has not even announced his commitment to executing his duties in JCPOA" and its associated United Nations resolution.
Implementation of the original deal, which lifted all nuclear-related sanctions, "is not a matter of give and take," Khatibzadeh said. "This act neither needs negotiations nor a resolution in the [IAEA] Board of Governors."
Biden's determination to reenter the nuclear deal has faced a number of challenges. After President Donald Trump's withdrawal and imposition of severe sanctions against Iran's oil exports, Iran eventually began breaching the terms of the agreement. In addition to increasing the quantity and quality of uranium enrichment it allows, Iran in February reportedly started producing metallic uranium that analysts say could be used in the production of a nuclear warhead. Iran has said repeatedly that it has no weapons program and is only interested in nuclear power production.
The administration has said that Iran's breakout time - the time it would take for it to assemble enough fissile material to produce a weapon - has shrunk from about one year under the deal to three or four months.
Threats to shut down the agreement's extensive verification and monitoring by the IAEA culminated in Iranian legislation setting a late February deadline for turning off the atomic agency's cameras and restricting on-site visits.
The deadline was at least temporarily averted when Tehran reached an agreement early last week, extending it for three months. Although it still limited some IAEA access, the compromise was seen as an effort on all sides to create additional space for diplomacy.
A detailed accounting of Iran's overall noncompliance is due to be reported Monday to the IAEA board. The timing of Iran's response to the E.U. invitation to talks, Western officials said, was in part designed to draw attention away from what probably will be critical topics coming from the meeting. The United States and its partners have threatened a resolution condemning Iran's actions.
Domestic Iranian politics also may have required a sharp response to Friday's U.S. military strike against allegedly Iranian-allied targets in Syria. The strike, ordered by Biden, was a response to attacks on U.S. and allied forces by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.