TEHRAN – Iran's supreme leader on Tuesday insisted negotiations over Tehran's tattered nuclear deal “are going ahead properly,” even after repeated comments by American officials that an agreement to restore the accord may not happen.
The comments by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during a meeting with hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi's administration marking the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, offered his endorsement of their “faithful and diligent” efforts.
But restoring the deal remains in question, apparently over Iran's demand that its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard be delisted by America as a terrorist group.
Khamenei made a point to praise the country's foreign minister and negotiating team, something that he had grown sour on under the government of previous President Hassan Rouhani, who attended the event Tuesday night in Tehran as well.
“There is nothing wrong with criticizing and commenting on their performance, as long as it is free from suspicion and pessimism and, as I have said many times, does not weaken the elements of the field and disappoint the people,” Khamenei said, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.
Khamenei and other officials have referred to the Guard and its expeditionary Quds Force as “the field” in the past.
He added that the West had faced a “deadlock” since then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018.
“So far our negotiation team has resisted before the other party’s excessive demands and, God willing, (that resistance) will continue,” Khamenei said.
However, lead U.S. negotiator Rob Malley has said in recent days that a deal is “not just around the corner and is not inevitable." That's been repeated by other American officials since the talks in Vienna went on a “pause” a month ago.
There's been no immediate sign of them resuming, despite Iranian media in recent days suggesting a prisoner swap could see billions of dollars in Iranian assets unfrozen in South Korea.
The U.S. State Department on Tuesday said no deals had been reached on either a prisoner swap or on the nuclear accord.
“Any reports otherwise, including reports that Iranian funds held in restricted accounts in third countries will be transferred, are false,” the State Department said. “Our partners have not released these restricted funds to Iran, nor has the United States authorized or approved any such transfer of restricted funds to Iran.”
The 2015 nuclear deal saw Iran put advanced centrifuges into storage under the watch of the International Atomic Energy Agency, while keeping its enrichment at 3.67% purity and its stockpile at only 300 kilograms (661 pounds) of uranium.
As of Feb. 19, the IAEA says Iran’s stockpile of all enriched uranium was nearly 3,200 kilograms (7,055 pounds). Some has been enriched up to 60% purity — a short technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90%. Meanwhile, Iran has stopped the IAEA from accessing its surveillance camera footage.
That has worried nuclear nonproliferation experts. While Iran insists its program is peaceful, the IAEA and Western governments say Iran had an organized military nuclear program up until the end of 2003.
But having Iran able to sell its crude oil and natural gas on the global market could also push down energy prices. Americans have been paying some of the highest-ever prices at the pump for gasoline, fueled by Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Khamenei also praised Palestinians for attacks against Israelis that killed and wounded several people in recent days.
"These moves showed that Palestine is alive despite efforts by the U.S. and its followers and through the current moves the final victory will be with the Palestinian people,” he said.
Iran does not recognize Israel and supports anti-Israeli militant groups like the Palestinian group Hamas and Lebanon's Shiite militia group Hezbollah.
In Yemen, where Iran supports the Houthi rebels against Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, Khamenei urged the kingdom to bring an end to the war. A temporary truce is ongoing there amid Ramadan.
“Why do you continue a war when you do not have the possibility of victory in it?" Khamenei asked. "Find a way and pull yourself out of the trouble.”
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.