WASHINGTON -- Days after President Donald Trump asked for options to take military action against Iran's major nuclear site, the government in Tehran has sent conflicting signals, taking a major step to speed up its production of nuclear fuel while also offering President-elect Joe Biden a way to defuse a confrontation.
On Wednesday, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iranian engineers had, for the first time, begun to put uranium into next-generation centrifuges that can enrich fuel faster than before. That move is explicitly prohibited in the 2015 nuclear accord, which Trump abandoned 2½ years ago.
When the agency issued a report last week noting that the high-speed centrifuges had been moved into the Natanz production site, "they had not started operations," said Rafael Grossi, the head of the inspection agency. "It is now happening."
The provocation coincided with Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, appearing to offer Biden a path for returning both sides to where they were when Biden left the vice presidency in January 2017.
In a video interview with an Iranian newspaper broadcast Tuesday, Zarif described a way for the United States to recommit to United Nations Security Council resolutions on Iran, in return for an Iranian return to the limits imposed by the 2015 nuclear agreement.
"This needs no negotiations and needs no conditions," Zarif said, but he offered few other details.
Zarif appeared to be offering to roll back the advances Iran has made over the past year, during which it has exceeded the production limits in the 2015 accord twelvefold. Biden, in return, would have to issue an order ending all of the nuclear-related sanctions imposed by Trump -- all of which violated American commitments under the deal.
But other Iranian officials have stopped short of saying they would actually reenter the nuclear deal as negotiated, and some officials have said the United States would have to pay reparations for oil sales lost because of Trump's decision to reimpose sanctions. That would be nearly impossible, as a political matter, for Biden, whose aides also say the deal must be improved to block pathways to Iran getting enough nuclear material for a weapon after all limitations are lifted in 2030.
After the nuclear agency issued a report last week, showing slow but steady progress in uranium enrichment by Iran, Trump asked his top aides for options, including possible military strikes. He was dissuaded from striking by a combination of Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the acting secretary of defense, Christopher Miller, and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
They warned that a military strike on Natanz -- by missile, bombs or cyberattack -- could lead to rapid escalation.
Also Wednesday, the U.S. hit Iran with new sanctions.
The Treasury and State departments announced that they had targeted a leading Iranian charity and numerous of its affiliates for human rights violations. At the same time, Pompeo released a statement titled "The Importance of Sanctions on Iran," which argued that the Trump administration's moves against Iran made the world safer and should not be reversed.
The sanctions announced Wednesday target Iran's Mostazafan Foundation and roughly 160 of its subsidiaries, which are alleged to provide material support to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for malign activities, including the suppression of dissent.
"While [it] is ostensibly a charitable organization charged with providing benefits to the poor and oppressed, its holdings are expropriated from the Iranian people and are used by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to enrich his office, reward his political allies, and persecute the regime's enemies," Treasury said in a statement.
Also targeted was Iran's Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, who it said "played a central role in the Iranian regime's human rights abuses against Iranian citizens."
Information for this article was contributed by David E. Sanger of The New York Times; and by Matthew Lee of The Associated Press.