As future of 2015 deal limiting Tehran’s nuclear programme hangs in the balance following US elections, Qatar’s foreign minister meets his Iranian counterpart in an attempt to bring Tehran and pact cosignatories closer to a solution.
Doha has signalled its intention to mediate between Tehran and Washington over the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, whose fate is in limbo after the power change in the White House.
Qatar's Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al Thani met his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif on Monday in Tehran.
The meeting comes as the 2015 deal between Iran and world powers limiting Tehran's nuclear programme in exchange for international sanctions relief is hanging by a thread.
Doha, a close US ally, also has good relations with Tehran.
Iran's presidency said the minister also met with President Hassan Rouhani, to whom he delivered a message from the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani.
Former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Tehran, with Iran a year later gradually suspending its compliance with most key nuclear commitments in response.
The new administration of President Joe Biden has expressed willingness to return to the deal, but insisted that Iran first resume full compliance, while Tehran has called for the immediate lifting of sanctions.
Iran has said it will restrict nuclear inspections later in February if US sanctions are not lifted, or other key parties to the deal do not help Tehran bypass them, according to a law passed by the conservative-dominated parliament in December.
On Monday, Iran's ambassador to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, wrote on Twitter that the law "will be executed on time," giving February 23 as the date.
"The IAEA has been informed today to ensure the smooth transition to a new course in due time," he added.
"The agency's Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi will be reporting to the Board (of Governors), and he is also talking to the Iranian authorities," a spokesperson for the IAEA said.
Israel's hard line on Iran
As the talks continue in Tehran, Iran's arch-enemy Israel held out the possibility that it would not engage with US President Biden on strategy regarding the Iranian nuclear programme, urging tougher sanctions and a "credible military threat" against its arch-enemy.
The remarks by Israel's envoy to Washington came on Tuesday at a touchy juncture for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Up for re-election next month, he has revived his hard line on Iran while not yet having any direct communication with Biden.
The new administration has said it wants a US return to a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, if the Iranians recommit to their own obligations.
Washington has also said it wants to confer with allies in the Middle East about such moves.
"We will not be able to be part of such a process if the new administration returns to that deal," Ambassador Gilad Erdan told Israel's Army Radio.
Netanyahu aides have privately questioned whether engaging with US counterparts might backfire, for Israel, by falsely signalling its consent for any new deal that it still opposes.
Tel Aviv against any negotiation
Israel was not a party to the 2015 deal.
It has powerful advocates within the US Congress, however, and Netanyahu's threats to take unilateral military action on Iran if he deems diplomacy a dead end also figure into big-power planning.
"We think that if the United States returns to the same accord that it already withdrew from, all its leverage will be lost," Erdan said.
"It would appear that only crippling sanctions, keeping the current sanctions and even adding new sanctions, combined with a credible military threat — that Iran fears — might bring Iran to real negotiations with Western countries that might ultimately produce a deal truly capable of preventing it breaking ahead (to nuclear arms)."
The Biden administration has said it wants to strengthen and lengthen constraints on Iran, which denies seeking the bomb.
READ MORE: Russia, Iran urge US to rescue nuclear deal
'An act of piracy'
However, Iran said on Monday that a US move this month to seize a cargo of oil on the grounds that it came from Tehran was an act of piracy, adding that the shipment did not belong to the Iranian government.
Washington filed a lawsuit earlier this month to seize a cargo of oil, alleging that Iran sought to mask the origin of the oil by transferring it to several vessels before it ended up aboard the Liberian-flagged Achilleas tanker destined for China.
Washington said the cargo contravened US terrorism regulations.
"This shipment does not belong to the Iranian government. It belongs to the private sector," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh told a weekly news conference.
He did not elaborate on what he meant by the private sector.
The Achilleas last reported its position on Sunday as anchored within the Galveston Offshore Lightering Area, which is outside the US Gulf port of Galveston, Refinitiv ship tracking data showed on Monday.
A US official said last week that Washington had sold more than a million barrels of Iranian fuel seized under its sanctions programme last year.
Tensions have mounted between Washington and Tehran since 2018, when former US President Trump abandoned Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with six major powers and reimposed sanctions on the country.
"It is very unfortunate that such an act of piracy is happening under the new US administration ... a solution should be found to stop such acts of piracy by anyone for any reason," the spokesperson Khatibzadeh added.