WASHINGTON – Tehran’s ballistic missile program “has to be on the table” if the U.S. re-enters the Iran nuclear deal, Jake Sullivan, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s national security adviser, said Sunday – an issue that Iranian President Hassan Rohani said was non-negotiable as recently as last month.
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Addressing the one-year anniversary of the U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Sullivan told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon now than it was before and that the U.S. is no safer now than it was before Soleimani’s killing, highlighting continued Iranian provocation against American interests in the Middle East.
"President Biden has said that if Iran comes back into compliance with its terms under the nuclear deal so that its program is back in a box then we would come back in, but that would become the basis for this follow-on negotiation," Sullivan said, noting that talks around the ballistic missile program would be part of the negotiations after re-entry into the nuclear deal.
Sullivan noted that talks can extend beyond the permanent five members of the UN Security Council and involve regional players, as well, saying that "[i]n that broader negotiation, we can ultimately secure limits on Iran's ballistic missile technology, and that is what we intend to try to pursue through diplomacy that involves the direct nuclear file and a broader set of regional issues."
The deal was narrowly focused on Iran's nuclear program, Sullivan said, while the U.S. would maintain all its abilities to push back Iran on all other matters. "It's not like we went into this thinking 'hey, we'll get the nuclear issue plus we'll just assume Iran will change its behavior overnight,'" he said. “We believed if you had the nuclear program in a box, you could then begin to chip away at some of these other issues. If you had the kind of clear-eyed diplomacy backed by deterrence, that it was a hallmark of what produced the Iran nuclear deal in the first place."
Sullivan admitted that did not come to pass, but argued that it was never fundamentally part of the deal that the U.S. expected to happen. "As we go forward, we will continue to look at each of the significant issues we face with Iran, each of the threats and challenges that Iran poses in its own distinct way, without presuming that by doing a deal on one aspect we're necessarily going to make progress on another," he said.
Biden previously promised to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal while building on the agreement, specifically vowing to take on the ballistic missile program. Rohani said last month that the ballistic missile program had nothing to do with the nuclear issue. “There is one JCPOA that has been negotiated and agreed — either everyone commits to it or they don’t,” Rohani said, using the acronym for the Joint Comprehensive Plan or Action, as the deal is known.
Iran plans to enrich uranium up to 20 percent at its underground Fordo nuclear facility, international inspectors said Saturday, pushing its program a technical step away from weapons-grade levels as it increases pressure on the West over its tattered atomic deal.
The International Atomic Energy Agency acknowledged Iran had informed its inspectors of the decision after news leaked overnight Friday.
The move comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the United States in the waning days of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, who unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal in 2018.
Shielded by the mountains, Fordo is ringed by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications. It is about the size of a football field, large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hardened enough to lead U.S. officials to suspect it had a military purpose when they exposed the site publicly in 2009.
The 2015 deal saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief. The accord also called for Fordo to be turned into a research-and-development facility.
As of now, Iran is enriching uranium up to 4.5 percent, in violation of the accord’s limit of 3.67 percent. Experts say Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium stockpiled for at least two nuclear weapons, if it chose to pursue them. Iran long has maintained its nuclear program is peaceful.
Iran separately has begun construction on a new site at Fordo, according to satellite photos obtained by The Associated Press in December.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.