Senior Iranian calls for talks with US on nuclear deal if sanctions gradually lifted

Mohsen Rezaei says sanctions would have to be lifted monthly during talks on a renewal of the 2015 deal

A senior Iranian hardliner has said Iran is ready to return to talks with the US and western powers on the 2015 nuclear deal if they commit to lifting all sanctions within a year.

This would amount to a strategic compromise if accepted since Tehran has previously demanded a US return to the nuclear agreement and an end to sanctions before Tehran would resume compliance.

The agreement saw Iran commit to curb its nuclear activities in return for an easing of sanctions.

Former Revolutionary Guards commander and potential conservative presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaei has told the Financial Times that sanctions would have to be lifted monthly during talks, with priority given to financial transactions and oil exports. This would ease pressure on Iran's shrinking economy and the consequent popular distress.

Ahead of negotiations, he proposed the US unfreeze billions of dollars of Iranian funds held in foreign banks as a confidence-building measure. He rejected reports that hardliners would delay talks until after the Iranian presidential election in June.

His proposal signals to European nuclear deal signatories – Britain, France and Germany – that Iran could be ready to attend proposed talks with the US if a firm commitment and timetable for sanctions removal is given. Iran has argued that the time is not right to accept the invitation.

Mr Rezaei not only has close, enduring ties with Iran's military after 16 years as Revolutionary Guards commander, but he also heads a political party represented in parliament and serves as secretary of the expediency council. This body draws up policies for approval by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who may have given his blessing for this interview in order to break the deadlock over who should return first to compliance.

The supreme leader supported the nuclear deal, did not pull out after the US abandoned it, and seems to want to rescue it.

Mr Rezaei warned that if US president Joe Biden did not re-enter the 2015 deal, abrogated by his predecessor Donald Trump in 2018, and lift sanctions, Iran would use leverage at its disposal against the US and continue expanding its nuclear programme and developing conventional defensive weapons.

He reiterated the ayatollah’s insistence that nuclear weapons “are not acceptable to us”.

The Biden administration has said the US will return to compliance and lift sanctions after Iran halts uranium enrichment beyond the low level the deal set, exports excess enriched material, places high resolution centrifuges in storage, and allows UN inspectors full access to all declared and suspected sites.

Commenting on the interview, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibsadeh said policy initiatives were undertaken by foreign minister Javad Zarif and "conveyed only through official channels" and Mr Rezaei had no responsibility in this matter.

Mr Zarif responded with a tweet promising “a constructive plan of action for new talks”.