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Iran Will Expand Nuclear Program and Won’t Talk to U.S., Ayatollah Says

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said in a televised address that Iran will expand its nuclear program and will not negotiate with the United States, doubling down on his defiance of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy.

In a Friday speech for the Eid al-Adha holiday, Ayatollah Khamenei said that entering talks with Washington over Iran’s nuclear program, as President Trump has urged Tehran to do, would only improve Mr. Trump’s chances of being re-elected in November. That, the ayatollah said, was Mr. Trump’s reason for suggesting such talks in the first place.

“He is going to benefit from negotiations,” Ayatollah Khamenei said. “This old man who is in charge in America apparently used negotiations with North Korea as propaganda,” he added — a reference to Mr. Trump’s high-profile nuclear diplomacy on another front, which to date has been mostly fruitless.

Ayatollah Khamenei also said that Iran would maintain its close alliances with militia groups in the region that it uses as proxies, defying another demand from the Trump administration.

The Iranian leader was not the first to connect the possibility of talks with the United States to the presidential election. Last month, Mr. Trump said on Twitter that Iran could make a better deal if it did so before November. “Don’t wait until after U.S. Election to make the Big deal,” he wrote. “I’m going to win. You’ll make a better deal now!”

The United States has continued to tighten sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, which have had a crippling effect on the Middle Eastern country’s economy. On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the State Department would expand the sanctions to cover 22 materials believed to be used in Iran’s nuclear, military and ballistic missile programs.

Ayatollah Khamenei said that Iran would not try to negotiate its way out of the sanctions and that it would be better off relying on its own industrial development. He said the Americans were targeting his country’s economy in the hope that Iranians would rise up against their government, which the ayatollah dismissed as “pipe dreams.”

Mr. Khamenei said that developing the nuclear program was an absolute necessity for Iran’s future. He dismissed the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and several world powers, which Mr. Trump abandoned in 2018, as “very damaging,” saying that Iran had suffered economic setbacks because of it.

Iran has insisted that its nuclear program is meant exclusively for peaceful purposes, but the United States and other countries believe it is pursuing the capacity to build a nuclear weapon.

The Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who was in charge of the negotiations for Iran, said as recently as last month in Parliament that the negotiating team had Ayatollah Khamenei’s full support and blessing to reach a deal.

The ayatollah, who recently directed his closest economic advisers to cement a 25-year military and economic partnership with China, said in his speech that European countries involved in the nuclear deal were unreliable, and that their attempts to salvage the pact — such as creating a secure financial channel so that Iran could maintain a limited amount of trade — were “useless games.”

Some Iranian officials and analysts have said that Iran’s strategy was to wait out the remainder of Mr. Trump’s term in hopes of a Democratic victory that could revive the deal, which was reached under President Barack Obama.

“Khamenei has always believed that accommodating to one U.S. demand would bring about another demand and another,” said Sina Azodi, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “For him, every solution would bring about another problem.”

But analysts, entrepreneurs and businessmen inside Iran have warned that the economy risks collapse if the current situation continues.

Since the United States pulled out of the nuclear deal in May 2018, Iran’s currency has dropped sharply and inflation has surged. The government said it faced a budget deficit of nearly 30 percent this fiscal year. Oil sales have plummeted from 2.5 million barrels a day to about 300,000, nearly eliminating Iran from the global crude oil market.

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US and Russia to meet for nuclear arms negotiations this month

Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea said that he and his Russian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, have agreed “on time and place for nuclear arms negotiations in June.”

The Trump administration has abandoned a number of key arms control pacts, most recently the Open Skies Treaty, in favor of seeking a three-party agreement with Russia and China. The insistence on a trilateral agreement is widely seen as a way to scuttle New START, the nuclear reduction treaty between the US and Russia that is set to expire in February 2021. Beijing has dismissed calls to participate in trilateral talks.

In his tweet Monday, Billingslea said that China had been invited to this month’s discussions, writing, “Will China show and negotiate in good faith?”

The arms control envoy reiterated last month that it is their expectation that a future arms control agreement will be multilateral, telling reporters, “We do absolutely expect that whatever arrangements are reached, the Chinese will be part of a trilateral framework going forward.”

Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, said it is unclear what incentive China would have to join the talks, given the disproportionate size of its nuclear arsenal in comparison to that of Russia and the US. The latter two countries “possess about 85% of the world’s nuclear weapons” — “more than 10 times the deployed number of strategic nuclear warheads as China, Britain and France combined,” he said.

Moreover, Kimball noted that the administration’s escalated rhetoric toward China amid the coronavirus pandemic will not have helped bring them to the table.

In remarks at the Hudson Institute last month, Billingslea dismissed “the notion that China should not be expected to engage in nuclear arms control until it has built up to US and Russian levels” as “an outdated display of Cold War logic.”

Kimball told CNN that the US and Russia meeting to discuss nuclear arms control matters is “good, but this is no reason to celebrate because the Trump administration’s position seems to remain the same.”

“They’re refusing to pick up Russia’s offer to extend New START,” he said, referencing “They appear to be still demanding new agreements that can’t be negotiated before New START expires, not only with Russia, but with China. So, I’m not jumping up and down for joy.”

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Last month, Ryabkov called the administration’s approach to the New START “quite strange” and said “it would be in everyone’s interest” to extend the deal.

“My view on this is that chances for the new START Treaty to be sustained are rapidly moving close to zero, and I think that on February 5, 2021, this treaty will just lapse, and it will end,” he told The National Interest.

In his remarks at the Hudson Institute, Billingslea said that the administration hoped to avoid “an unnecessarily expensive buildup in a three ways arms racing context” between the US, China and Russia, but warned that the US was prepared to “spend into oblivion” to beat them.

Kimball said the comments reflect “a dangerous philosophy about nuclear weapons,” adding, “No one wins an arms race.”

Ryabkov said Billingslea’s comments were noted.

“We will never, ever allow anyone to draw us into an arms race that would exceed our own capabilities,” he said. “But we will find ways how to sustain this pressure, both in terms of rhetoric and also in terms of possible action.”

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