A photo released on February 1, 2021, shows Iran's newest satellite-carrying rocket, called 'Zuljanah.' launched at an undisclosed location. Photo: AFP / Iranian Defense Ministry

The United States said Thursday it was ready to meet with Iran and reversed Donald Trump’s claims of new UN sanctions, providing an opening to jumpstart nuclear diplomacy.

Hours after Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his European counterparts, the United States welcomed a proposal to convene talks of all nations that were part of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

The EU political director, Enrique Mora, afterward proposed via Twitter an informal meeting of all participants, saying the nuclear accord was at a “critical moment” – ahead of a weekend deadline for Iran to restrict some UN nuclear inspections.

“The United States would accept an invitation from the European Union High Representative to attend a meeting of the P5+1 and Iran to discuss a diplomatic way forward on Iran’s nuclear program,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

The group that sealed the 2015 deal includes the United States and Iran as well as Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

Former president Trump withdrew from the nuclear accord and instead imposed sweeping sanctions aimed at bringing Iran to its knees.

But President Joe Biden has supported a return to diplomacy, saying that the 2015 accord was effective in reducing Tehran’s nuclear program.

It remains to be seen if Iran will also be willing to sit down with the United States. 

Iran has insisted that the United States first lift sanctions before it returns to full compliance with the 2015 accord, reversing steps it took in protest against Trump’s measures.

In one step Thursday, the Biden administration said it was no longer contending that the United Nations had imposed new sanctions on Iran.

In a letter, the acting US ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Mills, said that sanctions said to be reinstated in August “remain terminated.”

Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo had argued that the United States was still technically a participant in the 2015 accord and was triggering UN sanctions for violations.

Even close US allies dismissed the argument and the United Nations said that no such additional sanctions had come into force.

US eases restrictions on Iran diplomats

Also in Washington the United States said Thursday it was easing draconian restrictions imposed by Donald Trump’s administration on movements of Iranian diplomats accredited at the United Nations, headquartered in New York City, as part of a bid to reduce tensions.

“The idea here is to take steps to remove unnecessary obstacles to multilateral diplomacy by amending the restrictions on domestic travel. Those had been extremely restrictive,” a State Department official told reporters.

As part of his maximum pressure campaign on Iran, Trump in 2019 barred Iranian diplomats from all but a few blocks around the United Nations and their mission, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif saying he was even prohibited during a UN visit from visiting a colleague in a New York hospital.

The State Department said that Iranian diplomats would still be subject to restrictions on diplomats applied to nations with poor relations with the United States, such as North Korea, who need authorization to go beyond a 25-mile (40-kilometer) radius from Midtown Manhattan.

President Joe Biden’s administration also said Thursday it was ready to meet with Iranian officials under EU auspices to jumpstart diplomacy and reversed Trump’s widely derided contention that the United States snapped back UN sanctions against Iran.

US seeks fallback Saudi bases

The US military is looking for fallback bases in Saudi Arabia to prevent its troops deployed there from becoming obvious targets in the event of tensions with Iran, a senior US military official said Thursday aboard a US military aircraft during a tour of the Middle East. 

“We are not looking for new bases. I want to be clear on that,” said General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the US Army Central Command (Centcom). 

“What we would like to do, without shutting down these [current] bases,” he explained, “is to have the ability to go to other bases to operate in a period of heightened risk.”

“These are things that any prudent military planner would want to do to increase their flexibility, to make it more difficult for the adversary to target them.”

The Wall Street Journal reported on plans for ports and air bases in the kingdom’s western desert, which the US military would seek to develop as positions to be used if war were to break out with Iran.

At the year’s end, the US military deployed the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz to the region and had two B-52 bombers overfly the area.

The show of force was intended to deter Tehran from carrying out any attack on US forces on the first anniversary of the assassination by the United States of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.