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Iran says it will commit to nuclear inspections if U.S. lifts sanctions

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif addresses a forum on sustainable development at U.N.headquarters on July 17. (Richard Drew/AP)

NEW YORK — Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Thursday that if Congress lifts sanctions against the country, Iran will commit firmly to allowing international inspections of its nuclear program.

Speaking to reporters at the Iranian mission to the United Nations, Zarif said Iran’s parliament, or Majlis, would quickly ratify what is known as the Additional Protocol, a part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty that enforces monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran has voluntarily allowed inspections. But the agreement requires ratification by the Majlis by October 2023.

“If he wants more for more, we can ratify the Additional Protocol and he can lift sanctions,” Zarif said, referring to President Trump. “He has said that he will take any measure to Congress. Fine. Lift the sanctions and you have the Additional Protocol.”

Asked whether he meant before 2023, Zarif replied succinctly: “Tomorrow.”

The offer does not represent a modification in the agreement, and Zarif said Iran will not reopen negotiations on altering the elements of the 2015 deal, comparing it to “buying a horse twice.”

But Zarif called his offer “substantive,” an assessment shared by Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association. Kimball said the proposal was a meaningful step toward locking in Iran’s long-term commitment to the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“Washington would be foolish not to agree to work with other JCPOA partners and explore the offer by Zarif,” he said.

Tehran complied with the agreement for more than a year after Trump withdrew from it in May 2018. But Iran’s economy, already staggering under U.S. sanctions, has taken more debilitating blows recently as the Trump administration began trying to drive Iran’s oil revenue to “zero.”

In response, Iran has twice exceeded the limits set under the deal on the amount and purity of its enriched uranium.

The region seemed to be potentially rushing to war after recent incidents — including attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf and the shooting down of a U.S. drone — that American officials said were part of an Iranian effort to harm the United States and its allies.

Trump said he called off a retaliatory strike on Iran for the drone attack. But tensions remain high.

“We live in a very dangerous environment,” Zarif said. “The United States has pushed itself and the rest of the world into probably the brink of abyss. If it’s brinksmanship, it’s the United States doing brinksmanship. We are not engaged in brinksmanship; we’re simply protecting our interests.”

It is unlikely the Trump administration will accept the offer Zarif outlined. The State Department’s Iran point person, Brian Hook, said Wednesday that Iran has never responded to a U.S. offer to negotiate and that the Iranians “continue to reject diplomacy.”

“So, for as long as they continue to reject it, our sanctions will intensify,” he said.

Iranian officials are just as adamant that they will not budge.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has set a list of 12 conditions to be met — such as a halt to military support for militias in neighboring countries — before the sanctions can be lifted. Asked whether there was any room for compromise on any of them, Zarif said, “A list of one is too long.”

Zarif spent almost 90 minutes talking to about 20 U.S. journalists, in what appears to be a defiant response to restrictions imposed on him by the State Department.

He arrived in New York on Sunday to attend meetings at the United Nations only after Pompeo authorized a last-minute visa issued in Switzerland.

But simultaneously the State Department slapped strict geographic limits on Zarif, his delegation, all 13 diplomats accredited to the United Nations, and their ­families. Even the bordering streets were specified. Before, the Iranians were prohibited from traveling more than 25 miles from Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Now, it’s down to about six blocks.

The area includes the U.N. headquarters, the Iranian mission on Third Avenue and the ambassador’s residence on Fifth Avenue. The route to the airport is delineated in the notification, including the Queens Midtown Tunnel and Interstates 495 and 678.

Zarif characterizes the notification as giving him entry to three buildings, and says he isn’t inconvenienced. But he said it is a hassle for diplomats’ families, making it difficult to send their children to school, pray and seek medical attention.

The restrictions have not isolated Zarif, however.

He said he may meet with members of Congress, but declined to name them. He suggested that one of them will not be Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who during a golf game with Trump reportedly proposed acting as a mediator with Iran because of his dovish credentials.

“I don’t meet with emissaries,” Zarif said dismissively.

But Iran is interested in breaking the impasse with substantive moves, Zarif said. The Additional Protocol is on the table, he said, and more alternatives could be made.

“If they are putting their money where their mouth is, they have got to do it,” he said. “They don’t need a photo op. They don’t need a two-page document with a big signature. Mr. Bolton can hang this on his wall.”