Iran Accelerates Nuclear Program, but Offers Path Back From Confrontation

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WASHINGTON — Days after President Trump asked for options to take military action against Iran’s major nuclear site, the government in Tehran has sent conflicting signals, taking a major step to speed up its production of nuclear fuel while also offering President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. a way to defuse a confrontation.

On Wednesday, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iranian engineers had, for the first time, begun to put uranium into next-generation centrifuges that can enrich fuel faster than before. That move is explicitly prohibited in the 2015 nuclear accord, which Mr. Trump abandoned two and a half years ago.

When the agency issued a report last week noting that the high-speed centrifuges had been moved into the Natanz production site, “they had not started operations,” said Rafael Grossi, the head of the inspection agency. “It is now happening.”

The move is something akin to waving a red flag in the faces of Mr. Trump and the Israelis.

But the provocation coincided with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, appearing to offer Mr. Biden a path for returning both sides to where they were when Mr. Biden left the vice presidency in January 2017.

In a video interview with an Iranian newspaper broadcast on Tuesday, Mr. Zarif described a way for the United States to recommit to United Nations Security Council resolutions on Iran, in return for an Iranian return to the limits imposed by the 2015 nuclear agreement.

“This needs no negotiations and needs no conditions,” Mr. Zarif said, but he offered few other details.

Mr. Zarif appeared to be offering to roll back the advances Iran has made over the past year, during which it has exceeded the production limits in the 2015 accord twelvefold. Mr. Biden, in return, would have to issue an order ending all of the nuclear-related sanctions imposed by Mr. Trump — all of which violated American commitments under the deal.

But other Iranian officials have stopped short of saying they would actually re-enter the nuclear deal as negotiated, and some officials have said the United States would have to pay reparations for oil sales lost because of Mr. Trump’s decision to reimpose sanctions. That would be nearly impossible, as a political matter, for Mr. Biden, whose aides also say the deal must be improved to block pathways to Iran getting enough nuclear material for a weapon after all limitations are lifted in 2030.

Yet a return to the agreement would prohibit the injection of nuclear fuel into the new centrifuges, and require Iran to rid itself of the excess uranium it has added to its stockpile in response to what Mr. Trump has called his “maximum pressure campaign” on Iran.

While Iran’s actions seem contradictory, that is often the nature of Iranian signaling to the United States.

The nuclear program, which suffered an explosion at its centrifuge-production facility in July that has been widely attributed to Israel, is under the control of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has said that acquiescing to the United States in the 2015 deal was a mistake. His hard-line supporters, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, opposed the negotiation of the deal.

Mr. Zarif negotiated that accord, and remains one of its biggest defenders in Tehran. But the government he serves, under President Hassan Rouhani, faces an election next year and could be swept out of office, amid criticism by Iranian hard-liners that the government was duped five years ago, and has seen none of the promised economic benefits of agreeing to give up its nuclear capability.

After the nuclear agency issued a report last Wednesday, showing slow but steady progress in uranium enrichment by Iran, Mr. Trump asked his top aides for options, including possible military strikes. He was dissuaded from striking by a combination of Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the acting secretary of defense, Christopher C. Miller, and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

They warned that a military strike on Natanz — by missile, bombs or cyberattack — could lead to rapid escalation.

In response to Mr. Trump contemplating an attack on Iran’s nuclear facility, a spokesman for Iran’s government, Ali Rabiei, said on Tuesday that Iran would retaliate with “full force.”

But the issue does not appear settled, and the Iranian decision to insert fuel into the advanced centrifuges, called the IR-2 and the IR-4, could easily be seen as a provocation.

Until now, Iran’s production has been slow and steady, with officials like Mr. Zarif declaring that it is easily reversible. The new centrifuges produce fuel far more efficiently than the models they replace — and so, if they work, they could drastically increase Iran’s stockpile.

But they can be turned off as quickly as they were turned on, and that was the core of Mr. Zarif’s message, which appeared aimed not at Mr. Trump, but at Mr. Biden and his yet-unnamed foreign policy team.

Mr. Zarif worded it carefully, talking about returning to compliance with United Nations resolutions rather than to the 2015 nuclear deal. As a practical matter, that is close to the same thing: The U.N. resolutions gave an international imprimatur to a deal negotiated between Iran and six nations. (China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany joined the United States.)

Mr. Zarif suggested that by recommitting to the U.N. Security Council resolutions, there would be no need for an initial, detailed negotiation.

But Mr. Biden would not want to make that move unless he had ironclad commitments that Iran would also return to full compliance — and answer a series of questions from the International Atomic Energy Agency about evidence of nuclear activity at another site. So far it has stonewalled on those issues.

David E. Sanger reported from Washington, and Farnaz Fassihi from New York.

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