By Humeyra Pamuk and Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON, Aug 15 (Reuters) – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday he could not confirm a report that Iran slowed its pace of amassing near-weapons-grade enriched uranium but would welcome any Iranian steps to de-escalate its “growing nuclear threat.”
Blinken also told reporters that Iran moving U.S. detainees into house arrest was not related to any other aspect of U.S. policy toward Iran, which he said reflected a strategy of deterrence, pressure and diplomacy.
On Thursday, sources said Iran may free five detained U.S. citizens as part of a deal to unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian funds in South Korea. Iran allowed four detained U.S. citizens to move into house arrest from prison. A fifth was already under home confinement.
The Wall Street Journal on Friday reported Iran had significantly slowed the pace at which it was accumulating near-weapons-grade enriched uranium and diluted some of its stockpile, moves that could help ease tensions with the U.S. and revive broader talks over Iran‘s nuclear program.
“Of course, we would welcome any steps that Iran takes to actually deescalate the growing nuclear threat that it has posed since the United States got out of the Iran nuclear deal,” Blinken told a news conference, alluding to former U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2018 abandonment of that agreement.
Under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and six major powers, Iran had agreed to curb its nuclear program to make it harder for it to obtain an atomic weapon – an ambition it denies – in return for relief from U.S., European Union and United Nations sanctions.
When asked if Iran‘s reported slowdown and the release of the detainees to house arrest was in any way linked, Blinken said they were different issues. “The agreement that we’re pursuing to bring home those who are wrongfully detained in Iran is an entirely separate matter that we want to bring to a successful conclusion, and that’s what I’m focused on.”
The deal announced last week has left out Shahab Dalili, 60, a U.S. permanent resident who has been detained in Iran since 2016, even though his family have repeatedly pleaded with the Biden administration to include him in the deal or at least label him “wrongfully detained”.
Dalili has started a hunger strike in the Evin prison in Iran where he has been jailed, his son said on Monday.
The State Department makes the legal determination of wrongful detainment, which effectively means the U.S. government views the charges as politically motivated and false.
Blinken emphasized that the agreement included U.S. citizens who have all been designated as wrongfully detained and said Washington would continue to examine other cases.
“For reasons of privacy, I can’t talk about any individual cases. I can simply say that as a matter of policy, we’re constantly reviewing whether any particular individual, whether an American citizen or a legal permanent resident, who was incarcerated in another country is wrongfully detained,” he said.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Simon Lewis, Arshad Mohammed and Daphne Psaledakis; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Josie Kao)