Biden picks Iran envoy as Tehran ramps up pressure over nuclear deal

The State Department has appointed a former Obama aide who helped negotiate the landmark 2015 nuclear deal as the US special envoy on Iran.

And as if to underscore the urgency of the situation, Tehran said Thursday the country was producing uranium enriched to 20 percent and moving its nuclear program closer to weapons enrichment.

Under former President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has named Robert Malley, the White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region, as head of the Biden team for Iran for a critical foreign policy issue, according to a US State Department official the administration.

Malley “brings a track record of negotiating restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to the position,” the official said. “The secretary is confident that he and his team can do this again.”

The government’s approach to the nuclear deal will come under pressure. American allies Israel and the Arab Gulf states vehemently opposed the nuclear deal when it was negotiated and welcomed Trump’s withdrawal three years later.

Speculation over Malley’s appointment in recent days has also resulted in Malley being targeted by some Republicans and Iranian hawks who view him as reluctant, too gentle on Iran and less than fully supportive of Israel.

The criticism prompted various progressive foreign policy wonks and groups, including J Street, to rally in his defense and describe him in one open statement as “a clever analyst and accomplished diplomat”.

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However, if some were optimistic that the US could once again help curtail Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran announced more details on reducing compliance with the beleaguered nuclear pact from which former President Donald Trump withdrew the US in 2018.

Iranian parliamentary speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf said at a press conference on state television that Iran had produced 17 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent in less than a month.

According to the nuclear agreement, Tehran is only allowed to enrich uranium by around 3.5 percent. However, the country began reducing compliance with the pact in 2019 after Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the deal and reinstated sanctions the previous year.

In the last few weeks in office, the Trump administration continued to pursue a campaign of maximum pressure against Iran, and Tehran continued to violate the terms of the deal.

A bill passed by the Iranian parliament in December required the country to produce at least 120 kg of uranium enriched to 20 percent per year, or an average of 10 kilograms per month, which means a significant reduction in compliance.

The latest news that Iran produced 17 kilograms at its Fordo nuclear power plant in less than a month brings production well ahead of schedule.

Earlier this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that Iran had begun modifying and installing relevant equipment to conduct research and development into uranium metal production.

For bomb grade material, uranium should be about 90 percent enriched.

Iran, which has long denied wanting to develop a nuclear weapon because it would be against Islam, is currently enriching it to 20 percent of what it needs for medical isotopes for the treatment of cancer patients.

According to core experts, up to 20 percent enriched uranium can also be used to operate research reactors.

The Biden team has said the US is ready to return to the pact if Iran complies with the deal, while expressing a desire to build on the deal. Officials have indicated that Iran’s ballistic missile program would be high on the priority list.

However, Iran has repeatedly ruled out an expansion of the agreement and stated that the US should first return to the pact.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in a press conference in Istanbul on Friday that it was the “duty” of the United States to revert to the agreement, which Reuters said it had unilaterally withdrew.

Iran is ready to meet its commitments once the US has honored its commitments, Zarif added.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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