By Farnaz Fassihi and David E. Sanger
The rejection came days after President Biden ordered retaliatory strikes against Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria.
Iran on Sunday rejected an offer to negotiate directly with the United States in an informal meeting proposed by Europeans to revive the nuclear deal that President Donald J. Trump exited nearly three years ago.
A spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said recent actions taken by Washington and Europeans had led Iran to conclude that the “time was not right” to hold such talks. His remarks came days after President Biden ordered retaliatory strikes against Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria that were tied to recent attacks against American and allied personnel in Iraq.
“There has been no change in America’s positions and actions,” Mr. Khatibzadeh said in a foreign ministry statement. “The Biden administration has not set aside Trump’s maximum pressure policy, nor has it announced its commitments” under the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by Mr. Trump.
Mr. Biden has said the United States will return to the deal if Iran first returns to the commitments it made when it was signed. Iran has demanded that the U.S. lift all sanctions against it, and it has recently taken steps to increase uranium enrichment and limit the access by international inspectors to its nuclear sites.
That impasse prompted European signatories to the deal to suggest an informal meeting in which the Americans would attend as a guest and the two sides would get the opportunity to engage directly.
Dig deeper into the moment. Privately, American officials have expressed confidence that the timing questions could be resolved, noting that when the nuclear deal was being put into effect in early 2016, Iran and the United States engaged in a series of precisely coordinated actions that eliminated the question of who was making the first move.
But the political sensitivities are high. Mr. Biden is aware that Republican opponents of the deal are looking for any signs that his new administration is making concessions without getting anything in return. And Iran has a presidential election in less than four months, meaning no Iranian officials want to appear to be bending to American will.
So far, Mr. Biden has mixed a willingness to re-engage in diplomacy with modest military pushback to Iran’s support of proxy militias in Iraq and elsewhere. The good-will gestures included an abandonment of a failed effort by the Trump administration to force the re-imposition of United Nations sanctions that date to before the 2015 deal.
Mr. Trump argued that since Iran had resumed the production of nuclear material at levels prohibited by the accord, those sanctions should automatically snap back into place. The State Department also eased travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats coming to the United Nations and accepting Europe’s invitations to direct talks.
But then came Mr. Biden’s decision to order military strikes Thursday on several buildings used by the Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah and other groups in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border. The strikes were a response to a rocket attack on Feb. 15 in northern Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded an American service member and members of coalition troops.
Mr. Biden said the strikes were aimed at sending a message to Iran that “you can’t act with impunity — be careful.”
The escalating military tensions coincided with Iran weighing whether it would meet with the Americans, a notion that is just as unpopular within Iran’s conservative factions as it is among many Republican leaders in the United States.
A White House spokesman said Sunday that the United States was “disappointed” by Iran’s rejection of the talks but that “we remain ready to re-engage in meaningful diplomacy,” Reuters reported. Henry Rome, a senior analyst who follows Iran for the Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy, said Iran’s decision in part reflected its leaders’ desire to look resilient in the face of U.S. pressure.
“This is far from a death knell for negotiations,” he said in an email.
In his remarks Sunday, Mr. Khatibzadeh said Iran would respond in kind to both pressure and concessions from Washington.
Iran, he said, will “return to our commitments” in sanctions are lifted. But, he warned, it will also “respond to aggressive actions accordingly.”
Mr. Rome said the standoff made clear how “messy” reviving the dealt might prove.
“Even if the overall direction of travel is clear,” he said, “Washington and Tehran will zig and zag in efforts to build up leverage and handle their own domestic political considerations.”