The White House is clarifying its position on Iran after President Joe Biden gave an interview in which he indicated that the United States would not lift sanctions until Tehran stops enriching uranium.
“Just to be very clear, the president never said that exactly,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.
Biden, in a television interview aired Sunday, nodded in agreement when CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell asked about lifting sanctions and whether Iran must first halt enrichment of uranium at a higher level than allowed under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Agreement (JCPOA) from which the United States withdrew under the Donald Trump administration.
“I think if we were announcing a major policy change, we would do it in a different way than a slight head nod,” Psaki said during Monday’s White House press briefing when asked about the president’s position.
“Overall, his position has remained exactly what it has been, which is that if Iran comes into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same, and then use that as a platform to build a larger and stronger agreement that also addresses other areas of concern,” the press secretary said.
State Department officials are echoing that message and emphasizing they are discussing the issue with allies, rather than seeking dialog directly with Tehran.
“When it comes to getting engagement with the Iranians, we're not there yet,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Monday. “We want to again make sure that we have our ducks in a row with our closest friends, our closest partners and allies,” as well as with the U.S. Congress.
Biden has said he wants the United States to rejoin the nuclear treaty.
When asked directly in the CBS News interview whether the U.S. would lift sanctions first to get Iran to return to negotiations, Biden replied simply, “No.”
The pact had allowed Iran to enrich uranium at a 3.67% concentration level. But since mid-2019, it had pushed enrichment to a 4.5% level, and then last month to 20% — a level it had achieved before the accord.
Experts say Tehran now has enough low-enriched uranium stockpiled for at least two nuclear weapons, if it chooses to pursue their manufacture. But Iranian officials, to the long skepticism of Western governments, have maintained that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on state TV that if the United States wants “Iran to return to its commitments, the U.S. must lift all sanctions in practice, then we will do verification and see if the sanctions were lifted correctly, then we will return to our commitments."
Khamenei’s televised remarks were his first since Biden’s January 20 inauguration.
But in a CNN interview after Khamenei's remarks, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that there was no precondition that Iran receive compensation from the United States for the cost of sanctions imposed by Washington before restoring the nuclear pact.
Psaki also responded Monday to questions about why Biden has yet to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping, although the president has talked with numerous other world leaders.
Psaki, noting Biden’s calls with leaders of Japan, South Korea and Australia, said China was “of course an important topic of conversation during those conversations.”
The press secretary added that China was also discussed in calls with European leaders, “so part of our strategy is certainly engaging with partners in the region and allies and doing those calls and engagements first and also having consultations with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.”
The president “has not called every global leader yet, he has not had engagements with all of them and I'm sure he will do more of that in the weeks ahead,” Psaki added.
In the CBS interview, Biden said of Xi, “There was no reason not to call him.” He offered some praise of Xi but warned that relations between the countries would be different than they had been under Trump.
“He’s very bright. He’s very tough,” Biden said of Xi. “He doesn’t have — and I don’t mean it as a criticism, just the reality — he doesn’t have a democratic, small D, bone in his body.”
“I’ve said to him all along that we need not have a conflict,” said the president, recalling discussions with Xi when Biden was the U.S. vice president from 2009 to 2017. “But there’s going to be extreme competition. And I’m not going to do it the way that he knows. And that’s because he’s sending signals, as well. I’m not going to do it the way Trump did. We’re going to focus on international rules of the road.”