The US will honor its obligations under the 2015 nuclear pact that world powers struck with Iran only after the Islamic Republic returns to full compliance, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.
Key among Washington's obligations was the lifting of biting economic sanctions on large swathes of the Iranian economy that it agreed to as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But former President Donald Trump chose to unilaterally exit the pact in 2018, flouting objections from all of its other participants, including key US allies.
President Joe Biden, however, has voiced his desire to return the US to the pact, which places curbs on Iran's nuclear program and subjects it to invasive international inspections.
"President Biden has been very clear in saying that if Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same thing, and then we would use that as a platform to build, with our allies and partners, what we call the longer and stronger agreement, and to deal with a number of other issues that are deeply problematic in the relationship with Iran," Blinken told reporters.
He cautioned, however, that the Biden administration is "a long ways" from being able to reach that point.
Iran has taken a number of retaliatory steps after Trump chose to leave the deal and reimpose sanctions the US lifted under the agreement, most recently announcing that it would create uranium metal that it pledged not to produce under the accord.
Iranian officials have said the metal will be used as fuel for a research reactor, but the move has nonetheless prompted alarm because it can also be used to build the core of a nuclear bomb.
Tehran maintains the US should first meet its obligations and lift sanctions before it returns to compliance.
Turning to his priorities during first full day on the job, Blinken said he is "particularly focused on the question of sanctions on the Houthis" after Trump moved to designate Yemen's rebels as a terror group in the waning days of his presidency.
The action was taken despite repeated and vocal concerns that it could dramatically worsen the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, widely regarded as the world's worst.
The Houthis are the de facto authority across a wide swath of the badly-impoverished and food scarce nation, and the UN and aid groups have warned that designating the group as a terrorist organization would hinder the distribution of direly-needed aid.
UN aid chief Mark Lowcock warned Jan. 14 that the decision will push the impoverished nation into "a large-scale famine on a scale that we have not seen for nearly 40 years."
Amid the Biden administration’s review of the designation, Blinken said the US wants "to make sure that not only are American aid groups able to do what they can to provide assistance, but so are aid groups around the world that are providing the bulks of that assistance, and to make sure that nothing we are doing interferes with that.”
Commenting on Russia's detention of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, Blinken said it is "striking" for the US to see "how concerned and maybe scared the Russian government seems to be of one man."
“His voice is the voice of many, many Russians, and it should be heard, not muzzled,” the top diplomat said.
Navalny, 44 was arrested in Moscow after returning from Germany Jan. 17 where he was being treated after being exposed to the Novichok nerve agent. Russian authorities said he had violated probation terms from a suspended sentence linked to a 2014 money laundering offense, which Navalny says was "politically motivated."
Less than 25 hours after his return, Moscow's Khimki Court ruled that Navalny would remain in custody on 30-day pre-trial detention. He is now behind bars in Moscow's infamous Matrosskaya Tishina jail.
Russian authorities earlier Wednesday took Navalny’s brother, Oleg Navalny, into custody after raiding the opposition figure's office and apartment.
By Michael Hernandez in Washington