a major Iranian nuclear site in July and the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist last November. Israel has not publicly acknowledged either operation.

The Israeli offensive against Iranian shipping has two goals, analysts and officials said. The first is to prevent Tehran from sending equipment to Lebanon to help Hezbollah build a precision missile program, which Israel considers a strategic threat.

The second is to dry up an important source of oil revenue for Tehran, building on the pressure American sanctions have inflicted. After the United States imposed sanctions on Iran’s fuel industry in late 2018, the Iranian government became more reliant on clandestine shipping.

Sima Shine, a former head of research at Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.

The attacks typically feature limpet mines and sometimes torpedoes, the American official said. They generally target the ships’ engines or propellers, one Israeli official said. And they are intended to cripple but not sink the ships, the American and Israeli officials said.

a recent oil spill that left tons of tar on the beaches of Israel and Lebanon.

Within Israel, there is concern among maritime experts that the cost of a sea war may exceed its benefit.

While the Israeli Navy can make its presence felt in the Mediterranean and Red Seas, it is less effective in waters closer to Iran. And that could make Israeli-owned ships more vulnerable to Iranian attacks as they pass Iran’s western shores on their way to ports in the Gulf, said Shaul Chorev, a retired Israeli admiral who now heads the Maritime Policy and Strategy Research Center at the University of Haifa.

“Israeli strategic interests in the Persian Gulf and related waterways will undoubtedly grow,” he wrote in a statement, “and the Israeli Navy does not have the capabilities to protect these interests.”

Patrick Kingsley reported from Jerusalem, Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv, Farnaz Fassihi from New York, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

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Blinken’s Welcome by NATO Doesn’t Hide Differences on Key Issues

BRUSSELS — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken sought to smooth alliance feathers ruffled by the previous U.S. administration on a trip to NATO and the European Union this week, but his diplomatic calm did not completely mask deep-seated issues.

Mr. Blinken appeared to hit all the right soothing notes, talking of the American desire to “revitalize the alliance” and consult and coordinate with America’s Western allies “wherever and whenever we can.” He met with the E3 — the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany — and those of the Visegrad Four — Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He met with his Baltic colleagues.

He praised NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who has faced internal criticism for his sometimes awkward efforts to flatter former President Donald J. Trump and keep him from blowing up the alliance with bombastic threats. Mr. Blinken also offered nice words for embattled European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the bloc’s foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles.

And he scheduled meetings with his Belgian counterpart and a virtual thank-you to the staff of the three American embassies in Brussels.

the troop withdrawal agreement it struck with the Taliban last year is coming due. A decision is coming soon, and “in together, adjust together and, when the time is right, leave together” remains the NATO position, even if it is becoming clearer that the original withdrawal deadline of May 1 is likely to slip by several months.

Mr. Blinken said that he had provided NATO colleagues “the president’s thinking.” But just as important, he insisted, were their views, which he had shared with the White House Tuesday night, he said.

“We will consult with our friends, early and often,’’ he said, describing it as “a change from the past that our allies are already seeing.’’

He gave no indication of when a decision on how many troops to withdraw, and when, might be coming. But it seemed clear that Washington and NATO will want to give time, perhaps as much as six months, for a new effort at getting the Afghan government and the Taliban to reach a power-sharing government. The risk is that after May 1, the originally agreed date for American troops to leave, the Taliban will renew attacks on NATO forces.

China is also an undercurrent of strain. European allies are reluctant to be pushed into an American-led confrontation with China. Those countries, and especially large export-driven economies like Germany, are more dependent on China for trade.

But Mr. Blinken promised that “the United States won’t force our allies into an ‘us-or-them’ choice with China,” despite Beijing’s “coercive behavior,” he said, that “threatens our collective security and prosperity” and its efforts “to undercut the rules of the international system and the values we and our allies share.”

At the same time, Mr. Blinken said, Washington would seek to work with China on issues like climate change and health security, and do the same with Russia, despite its own aggressive actions, on nuclear arms control, “strategic stability” and climate.

And then there is the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline, a Russia-owned project that will take Russian gas to Germany, bypassing Ukraine and Poland. Mr. Biden has made no secret of his opposition to the pipeline and his intention to follow legal requirements to impose sanctions on any company or institution that aids in its construction.

Mr. Blinken repeated that position to Foreign Minister Heiko Maas of Germany at the start of their bilateral meeting. At the same time, he emphasized that Germany is among America’s most important allies, that the pipeline is “an irritant in an rock-solid alliance,’’ and that Germany has some choices to make.

On Iran, Mr. Blinken insisted that the E3, participants in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, were aligned with Washington in demanding that Iran make the first move to restore compliance with it. Mr. Blinken said that Washington remained open to restart diplomatic talks with the Iranians on nuclear issues, but that “the ball is in their court.’’ Iran has rejected that stance, arguing that the United States abandoned the deal under Mr. Trump, reimposing harsh sanctions, and should remove them first.

Mr. Blinken also encouraged NATO allies to continue to spend more on defense as they have promised, saying that a more modern and adaptable NATO needs more resources. “When our allies shoulder their fair share of the burden, they will have a fair say in the decisions,’’ he said.

But he also had a veiled warning for NATO allies who are regressing in democratic practices, like Hungary, Poland and Turkey. Without naming them, he said, “some of our allies are moving in the wrong direction.” NATO allies must “all speak up when countries take steps that undermine democracy and human rights,’’ he said.

He further warned that to maintain and sustain American support, the alliance must also serve American interests.

“We can’t build a foreign policy that delivers for the American people without maintaining effective alliances,’’ he said. “And we can’t sustain effective alliances without showing how they deliver for the American people.’’

Of course the other 29 countries in the alliance have voters, too. But this week’s visit was about restoration and revival, not open criticism.

As Mr. Stoltenberg said: “We have now a unique opportunity to start a new chapter in the trans-Atlantic relationship,” adding: “Secretary Blinken, Tony, once again welcome to NATO. You are here not just among allies, but also among friends.’’

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Netanyahu Has Path to Sixth Term in Israel Election, Exit Polls Show

If Mr. Netanyahu does retain office, he is expected to force a showdown with the judiciary. For years, the Israeli right has framed the Supreme Court as an elitist, activist institution that undercuts the will of the electorate. Its defenders say it protects democratic norms and does its best to stay out of the political fray.

In December, Mr. Netanyahu announced that he intended to curb the court’s influence, calling for “updated arrangements regarding the limits of the judiciary’s authority,” and promising that his party would enact them as soon as it was able. Without the constraints of his centrist former coalition partners, Mr. Netanyahu can put that plan into action.

The election was conducted against a backdrop of profound political gridlock, with the current cabinet so dysfunctional that it could not agree on a state budget for two consecutive years, nor the appointment of key state officials, including the state attorney and the senior officials at the justice and finance ministries.

The vote followed a campaign that centered on the suitability of Mr. Netanyahu himself, rather than on more existential or ideological questions like the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or how to bridge the divide between secular and religious Israelis.

Mr. Netanyahu presented himself as the only candidate able to deter what many Israelis see as the threats posed by Iran. He also sought to distinguish himself as a statesman who had cemented diplomatic relations with four Arab states and brought a world-leading vaccination program to Israel, helping the country to emerge recently into something approaching normal life.

It was a message that resonated with many voters.

“Bibi is the only leader in this country in my eyes,” said Elad Shnezik, a 24-year-old foreign-exchange trader who voted for Likud in Tzur Hadassah, a suburb west of Jerusalem. “I have never seen anything bad in his actions. Everything he does, he does for the people.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents framed him as a threat to the rule of law, and a liability unable to govern effectively because of the distraction of his criminal trial. His attempts to position himself as a diplomatic trailblazer were dampened in the final days of the campaign, after a planned photo-opportunity in Abu Dhabi with the leadership of the United Arab Emirates fell through, amid Emirati frustration about being used as a prop in Mr. Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.

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Saudi Arabia Offers Cease-Fire in Yemen and Lifting of Blockade

Saudi Arabia proposed what it described as a new peace offering on Monday to end the kingdom’s nearly six-year-old war on the insurgency in neighboring Yemen, pledging to lift an air-and-sea blockade if the Houthi rebels agree to a cease-fire.

The offering, announced by Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, came as pressure has escalated on the country to help break a stalemate in the Yemen conflict, which the United Nations has called the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster.

Millions of Yemenis, including children, are verging on famine partly because of the blockade, which has choked the delivery of food and fuel to the country, the Arab world’s poorest.

The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, was quoted by Arab news media as saying that if the Houthis agreed to a cease-fire, the country would allow the reopening of the airport in Sana, the Yemeni capital, and would permit fuel and food imports through Hudaydah, a major Yemeni seaport. Both are controlled by the Houthis.

announced an end to American logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen.

United Nations humanitarian officials have been pleading for eased access to vulnerable Yemenis isolated by the war, warning that famine already is beginning to take hold. After a visit to Yemen in early March, David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program, the U.N.’s anti-hunger agency, said “the famine is on a worsening trajectory.”

Six years of war, Mr. Beasley said, had “completely devastated the people, in every respect.”

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Saudi Arabia Offers Cease-Fire Deal in Yemen

RIYADH—Saudi Arabia unveiled a proposal for a cease-fire aimed at disentangling itself from Yemen’s civil war, as rebel forces press an offensive and the Biden administration seeks to extricate the U.S. from the six-year-old conflict.

The proposal announced Monday includes a nationwide cease-fire, reopening of both the airport in the capital San’a and the country’s largest port at Hodeidah, as well as the start of political consultations under United Nations supervision, which have so far failed to resolve the conflict between the Saudi-backed forces and the Houthi rebels.

“We want the guns to fall completely silent. That is the initiative and that is the only thing that can really help us get to the next step,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told reporters Monday. “We hope that we can have a cease-fire immediately, but the onus is on the Houthis.”

The Houthis, who are aligned with Saudi archenemy Iran, dismissed the proposal as containing nothing new.

“Any positions or initiatives that don’t recognize that Yemen has been subjected to hostility and blockade for six years, and don’t separate the humanitarian aspect from any political or military bargain or lift the blockade are nothing new or serious,” said the group’s spokesman, Mohammed Abdel Salam.

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China’s Sharp Words in Alaska Signal its More Confident Posture

The extraordinary rancor aired by China’s top diplomats in Alaska was a manifestation of a newly combative and unapologetic China, one increasingly unbowed by diplomatic pressure from American presidential administrations.

Just as American views on China have shifted after years of encouraging the country’s economic integration, so have Beijing’s perceptions of the United States and the privileged place in the world that it has long held. The Americans, in their view, no longer have an overwhelming reservoir of global influence, nor the power to wield it against China.

That has made China more confident than it once was in pursuing its aims openly and unabashedly — from human rights issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang to the territorial disputes with India and Japan and others in South China Sea to, most contentiously of all, the fate of Taiwan, the self-governing democracy that China claims as its own.

While China still faces enormous challenges at home and around the world, its leaders now act as if history were on their side.

it fought Indian troops last year and menaced ships from several countries, including Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam.

new report on the issue, said on Thursday.

Meetings between the Chinese and the Americans have been testy before, but the balance of power between the two countries has changed.

For decades, China approached American governments from positions of weakness, economically and militarily. That forced it at times to accede to American demands, however grudgingly, whether it was to release detained human-rights advocates or to accept Washington’s conditions for joining the World Trade Organization.

China today feels far more assured in its ability to challenge the United States and push for its own vision of international cooperation. It is a confidence embraced by China’s leader since 2012, Xi Jinping, who has used the phrase, “the East is rising, and the West is declining.”

largely tamed at home, and the internal political divisions roiling the United States. Mr. Yang singled both out in his remarks on Thursday.

“The challenges facing the United States in human rights are deep-seated,” Mr. Yang said, citing the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality. “It’s important that we manage our respective affairs well instead of deflecting the blame on somebody else in this world.”

intensifying punitive measures imposed by the Trump and, now, Biden administrations.

In the latest round, the State Department announced this week that it would impose sanctions on 24 Chinese officials for their role in eroding Hong Kong’s electoral system. The timing of the move, just as the Chinese were preparing to depart for Alaska, contributed to the acrimony.

“This is not supposed to be the way one welcomes his guests,” China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said in remarks in Alaska that were equally pointed as Mr. Yang’s.

impervious to outrage over its actions, making the task all the more challenging.

new national security law to restrict dissent in Hong Kong did nothing to halt a new law this year dismantling the territory’s electoral system.

China also chose Friday to begin its trials of two Canadians who were arrested more than two years ago and charged with espionage in what was widely seen as retaliation for the American effort to extradite a senior executive from Huawei, the telecommunications giant, for fraud involving sales to Iran.

It was striking that Mr. Yang, a veteran diplomat and a member of the ruling Politburo of the Communist Party of China, used his remarks to say that neither the United States nor the West broadly had a monopoly on international public opinion.

That is a view reflected in China’s successful efforts to use international forums like the United Nations Human Rights Council to counter condemnation over policies like the mass detention and re-education programs in Xinjiang, the predominately Muslim region in western China.

“I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize that the universal values advocated by the United States or that the opinion of the United States could represent international public opinion,” Mr. Yang said. “And those countries would not recognize that the rules made by a small number of people would serve as the basis for the international order.”

wrote approvingly under a video of Mr. Yang’s remarks.

While American officials said the temperature of the meetings in Alaska went down behind closed doors, few officials or experts on either side are hopeful of a significant improvement in relations. The talks are scheduled to continue for another round on Friday.

“On the whole, this negotiation is only for the two sides to put all the cards on the table, for the two sides to recognize how big and deep each other’s differences are,” said Wu Qiang, an independent political analyst in Beijing, “But in fact, it will not help to bring about any reconciliation or any mitigation.”

Chris Buckley in Sydney and Lara Jakes in Anchorage contributed reporting, and Claire Fu contributed research.

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Europe Struggles to Defend Itself Against a Weaponized Dollar

BRUSSELS — The new Biden administration is making nice with the European Union, talking of renewed cooperation and suspending retaliatory tariffs stemming from an old dispute between Airbus and Boeing.

But despite the warm words and efforts at rebuilding trust, the American willingness to punish its European allies and impose sanctions on them in pursuit of foreign-policy goals continues to rankle.

It is an underlying tension, a ready reminder of the asymmetric power of the United States. That is especially so when it comes to what are known as secondary sanctions. While Iran and Russia, for example, may be the primary target of sanctions, the secondary sanctions punish other countries and companies — very often European — that do business with them as well.

Increasingly popular with Congress, secondary sanctions have been deployed to coerce allies to fall into line on any number of issues. In recent years, those have included the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, Iran’s nuclear program and the socialist governments of Venezuela and Cuba. The great fear is that they would some day be used by the United States against China — or even vice versa — leaving Europe squeezed in the middle.

a marked vulnerability for Europe, which depends on open markets. It has prompted serious discussions of how to defend Europe and the euro from Washington’s whims, and it has become a central part of the argument about how to create “strategic autonomy,” so Europe can protect its own interests.

Last month, the European Union announced efforts to strengthen an “anti-coercion instrument’’ against “unfair trading practices.” The main sources of them are China and Europe’s self-professed ally and partner, the United States.

While Europe favors using multilateral institutions on trade disputes, “we cannot afford to stand defenseless in the meantime,” said Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Union’s commissioner for trade. The European Union must be able to defend itself “from those trying to take advantage of our openness,’’ he said.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, has condemned Washington’s use of secondary sanctions against European companies doing “legitimate business.’’

threatening “crushing legal and economic sanctions.’’

Denying access to the American market and the dollar is “an immense source of political power,’’ said Jonathan Hackenbroich of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, who has studied the issue as part of a project with senior German and French officials, who want to reduce European vulnerability.

Almost any company that has business in the United States or uses the American banking system or the dollar is going to try to preserve that relationship and cut off business with the target of the sanctions, he said, even to the point of “overcompliance.”

Mr. Borrell wrote that “we need to develop the international role of the euro, to avoid being forced to break our own laws under the weight of secondary sanctions.”

But few believe that the euro will become a rival to the dollar any time soon, or perhaps ever, given Europe’s slow growth, its internal divisions over how to solidify and strengthen the euro, and the growing power of China and the renminbi.

an estimated $2 billion, while Siemens lost a rail contract worth $1.5 billion and Airbus lost $19 billion.

President Biden has said that he will rejoin the Iran deal, but will not lift sanctions until Iran returns to compliance. Although most diplomats assume that Washington and Tehran will work out some sort of sequencing, European companies remain hesitant.

the debate over how Europe can project its own power and protect itself from larger and more powerful nations, whether allies or competitors, will not go away.

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As Oil Prices Rise, Executives Aim to Keep Them High

HOUSTON — Even as oil and gasoline prices rise, industry executives are resisting their usual impulse to pump more oil out of the ground, which could keep energy prices moving up as the economy recovers.

The oil industry is predictably cyclical: When oil prices climb, producers race to drill — until the world is swimming in petroleum and prices fall. Then, energy companies that overextended themselves tumble into bankruptcy.

That wash-rinse-repeat cycle has played out repeatedly over the last century, three times in the last 14 years alone. But, at least for the moment, oil and gas companies are not following those old stage directions.

An accelerating rollout of vaccines in the United States is expected to turbocharge the American economy this spring and summer, encouraging people to travel, shop and commute. In addition, President Biden’s coronavirus relief package will put more money in the pockets of consumers, especially those who are still out of work.

to less than zero.

That bizarre day seems to have become seared into the memories of oil executives. The industry was forced to idle hundreds of rigs and throttle many wells shut, some for good. Roughly 120,000 American oil and gas workers lost their jobs over the last year or so, and companies are expected to lay off 10,000 workers this year, according to Rystad Energy, a consulting firm.

Yet, even as they are making more money thanks to the higher prices, industry executives pledged at a recent energy conference that they would not expand production significantly. They also promised to pay down debt and hand out more of their profits to shareholders in the form of dividends.

“I think the worst thing that could happen right now is U.S. producers start growing rapidly again,” Ryan Lance, chairman and chief executive of ConocoPhillips, said at the IHS CERAweek conference, an annual gathering that was virtual this year.

several million barrels of oil off the market. OPEC’s 13 members and nine partners are pumping roughly 780,000 barrels of oil a day less than at the beginning of the year even though prices have risen by 30 percent in recent months.

rising concerns about climate change reduce the demand for fossil fuels in favor of electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles. Russia has been pressing Saudi Arabia to loosen production caps, while Kazakhstan, Iraq and several other countries are exporting more. Even Iran and Venezuela, which have struggled to sell oil because of U.S. sanctions, are beginning to export more.

attacked American military forces.

Some tensions in the region could ease if the Biden administration and Iranian officials restart negotiations on a new nuclear agreement to replace the one that was negotiated by the Obama administration and abandoned by the Trump administration. Iran would then most likely export more oil.

Of course, U.S. oil executives have little control over those geopolitical matters and say they are doing what they can to avoid another abrupt reversal.

“We’re not betting on higher prices to bail us out,” Michael Wirth, Chevron’s chief executive, told investors on Tuesday.

Chevron said this week that it would spend $14 billion to $16 billion a year on capital projects and exploration through 2025. That is several billion dollars less than the company spent in the years before the pandemic, as the company focuses on producing the lowest-cost barrels.

“So far, these guys are refusing to take the bait,” said Raoul LeBlanc, a vice president at IHS Markit, a research and consulting firm. But he added that the investment decisions of American executives could change if oil prices climb much higher. “It’s far, far too early to say that this discipline will last.”

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Impasse Over Iran Nuclear Talks Sets Off International Scramble to Save Accord

WASHINGTON — Three weeks ago, in a show of both good faith and diplomatic pressure, the United States offered to rejoin nuclear talks with Iran. The double-edged overture fell flat: Iran refused to meet without first receiving financial incentives, and the Biden administration made clear, as the White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, put it, that “the ball is in their court.”

That set off a new rush among world powers to resuscitate a 2015 nuclear accord that the United States exited three years after negotiating it, leaving Iran to steadily violate the terms of the deal.

Diplomats from Britain, France and Germany have since urged Iran to accept a joint European-American invitation on Feb. 18 to begin informal negotiations. Officials from China and Russia have taken a more sympathetic approach in asking Tehran in recent days to return to talks. President Hassan Rouhani of Iran discussed the delicate diplomacy in a phone call with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain on Wednesday and President Emmanuel Macron of France last week.

“We have to use this window of opportunity,” Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, told an Atlantic Council forum on Feb. 23.

Mr. Grossi kept Tehran from crossing a diplomatic red line.

it withdrew from the deal in May 2018.

“America was first in breaking with the agreement and it should be the first to return to it,” Mr. Rouhani said on Wednesday during a cabinet meeting in Tehran.

However, he added: “America should know that we are ready to implement the agreement. We are ready to implement it full in return for full and parts in return for parts. We are ready to return to our full commitments for their full return or part of our commitments for their partial return.”

wait-and-see approach toward negotiations.

He appears torn between allies in Europe and critics in Congress over broadening the nuclear accord to also limit Iran’s ballistic missiles program and its support for proxy militias across the Middle East.

Though many senior administration officials had negotiated the nuclear deal while working for President Barack Obama, and still support it, they also say they are unwilling to compromise further — particularly as Iran persistently tests Mr. Biden’s limits.

“Can you assure us that we’re not going to make concessions just to get a meeting?” Representative Brad Sherman, Democrat of California, asked Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Wednesday during a House hearing, referring to the nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“I can,” Mr. Blinken responded.

“Do we expect that before we give them sanctions relief that they will verifiably either be in full compliance with the J.C.P.O.A. or be on a negotiated path toward full compliance?” Mr. Sherman asked.

“Yes,” Mr. Blinken said.

The demands for a broader accord to address other Iranian threats echoes the Trump administration’s goals of a pressure campaign against Tehran. But Mr. Biden’s pursuit to “lengthen and strengthen” the deal is also calculated to assuage Democratic critics of the 2015 accord.

Among them is Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who oversees the State Department and the approval process for presidential nominees to work there.

“Iran’s continuous engagement on so many other fronts — on the ballistic missiles, on the destabilization of the region, on its continuing advocacy for terrorism to its proxies — you know that just going back to the J.C.P.O.A. is really a difficult proposition,” Mr. Menendez told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.

proposed legislation to address Iran’s missile program and proxy support “after such time that all sides return to their commitments”
under the nuclear accord.

Iran’s leaders have warned that expanding the accord is a nonstarter, and European diplomats worry that broaching it in the delicate negotiations will scuttle the entire effort.

“Once we do the first step, then we can continue, or start talking about other pending issues,” Mr. Borrell said at the Atlantic Council, a policy center. “But if you start talking about the pending issues in the beginning, you will never restart.”

Trita Parsi, the founder of the National Iranian American Council and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, a policy center that advocates military restraint, said both Iran and the United States would “have to swallow some pride and pay a political cost” if negotiations were to restart.

“And the longer they wait, the higher that cost will be,” Mr. Parsi wrote in an analysis published on Feb. 28.

Iran’s latest breach of the nuclear deal came on Feb. 23, when Tehran formally prohibited the International Atomic Energy Agency from conducting snap inspections of at least some Iranian nuclear sites.

Mr. Grossi rushed in to negotiate a three-month stopgap, during which Iran will give inspectors some access to its sites as diplomats try to rekindle negotiations. After Mr. Grossi’s second meeting with Iranian officials in two weeks, European diplomats announced they would hold off, “for now,” on formally rebuking Iran’s refusal to allow snap inspections.

Mr. Blinken’s demand for the release of Americans being held in Iran by opening the door to direct negotiations with the United States on a prisoner exchange. At least four American dual citizens are being held by Iran, which has a long history of detaining foreigners and dual citizens on bogus charges of espionage and swapping them for Iranians incarcerated abroad.

An Iranian government spokesman, Ali Rabiei, said the impasse over the nuclear accord should not delay a prisoner swap. “We can discuss all the prisoners at one time and resolve this issue,” Mr. Rabiei told journalists in Tehran.

Last month, the United States lifted travel restrictions on Iranian officials visiting the United Nations headquarters in New York, and dropped its demand that the United Nations Security Council enforce international sanctions against Iran. Both were presented to Tehran as good-faith efforts.

Despite the impasse, American and European diplomats said informal talks could begin in coming weeks. When they do, it is expected that the United States and Iran could agree to take simultaneous steps toward coming back into compliance with the 2015 accord.

Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York.

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U.S. Pushes U.N.-Led Peace Conference in Letter to Afghan Leader

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has proposed a United Nations-led peace conference in Turkey aimed at forming an inclusive Afghan government with the Taliban and establishing a three-month reduction in violence leading to a cease-fire.

In a letter to President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan requesting his “urgent leadership,” Mr. Blinken signaled that the Biden administration had lost faith in faltering negotiations between Mr. Ghani’s government and the Taliban. The unusually blunt letter, in which Mr. Blinken asked Mr. Ghani to “understand the urgency of my tone,” reflected American frustration with the Afghan president’s often intransigent stance in stalled peace talks.

The existence of the letter was confirmed by a U.S. official in Washington and the Afghan government.

Negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban began in September as part of a February 2020 agreement between the militants and the United States. But the talks have faltered over issues like a prisoner exchange and reductions in violence.

Mr. Blinken wrote that the United States had not decided whether to withdraw the remaining 2,500 American troops from Afghanistan by May 1, as outlined in its agreement with the Taliban. He expressed concern that “the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains” following a U.S. withdrawal.

The State Department declined to comment on the letter but said in a statement that “all options remain on the table” regarding the withdrawal of American troops.

“We have not made any decisions about our force posture in Afghanistan after May 1,” the statement said.

A pullout would create enormous security challenges for Mr. Ghani’s government and its overburdened security forces.

The United Nations-led conference in Turkey would include envoys from the United States, China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran and India “to discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan,” Mr. Blinken wrote.

The existence of the letter was reported after Zalmay Khalilzad, the American peace envoy, delivered an outline of U.S. policy options to Mr. Ghani’s government and Taliban negotiators last week. The proposals, intended to reinvigorate the stalled peace negotiations, included a road map for a future Afghan government with Taliban representation, a revised Afghan constitution using the current one as an “initial template” and terms for a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.

The New York Times obtained a copy of the proposals, dated Feb. 28, which Afghan officials confirmed were delivered by Mr. Khalilzad last week.

Significantly, the proposals called for national elections after the establishment of a “transitional peace government of Afghanistan.” The Taliban have opposed elections, dismissing them as Western interference.

The proposals also include guaranteed rights for women and for religious and ethnic minorities, and protections for a free press. The Taliban violently suppressed women and minorities and did not permit independent news media when the group led Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

Taliban negotiators have said they support women’s rights within the strictures of Islamic law — the same strictures the militants cited to ban women from schools and workplaces.

The outline presented by Mr. Khalilzad proposed a High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence to advise an independent judiciary to resolve conflicts over the interpretation of Islamic law. The proposals recognized Islam as the country’s official religion and acknowledged the importance of “Islamic values” in a future Afghan state.

The outline proposed that the government and the Taliban each name seven members to the High Council, with a 15th member appointed by the Afghan president. Similar arrangements were proposed for a commission to prepare a revised constitution and for a Joint Cease-fire Monitoring and Implementation Commission.

The proposals also called for the Taliban to remove “their military structures and officers from neighboring countries.” Pakistan has provided a sanctuary for Taliban commanders and fighters crossing back and forth into Afghanistan and has permitted the militants to maintain a political council in the country.

Both Pakistan and the Taliban are unlikely to agree to such a proposal.

An introduction to the document said it “sets forth principles for governance, security, and rule of law and presents options for power sharing that could help the two sides reach a political settlement that ends the war.”

The Biden administration has said the Taliban have not lived up to their commitments to reduce violence and to cut ties with extremist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. But Washington has also grown impatient with Mr. Ghani, who has refused to consider an interim government that would almost certainly end his second five-year term as president.

Violence has escalated in Afghanistan over the past year, with persistent Taliban territorial gains and attacks on beleaguered government forces. Mr. Ghani’s government has blamed the Taliban for a series of targeted assassinations of government officials and supporters, security force members and their families, civil society advocates and journalists.

The Taliban have used the violence as leverage in the peace talks in Doha, Qatar, dragging out negotiations while awaiting a decision by President Biden on the May 1 troop withdrawal.

Mr. Blinken’s letter expressed impatience with the pace of negotiations, saying the United States intended “to move matters more fundamentally and quickly toward a settlement and a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.”

Asfandyar Mir, an analyst at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, said the Biden policy outlined in Mr. Blinken’s letter was “focused, aggressive, ambitious in scope, but also comes with enormous risks.”

He added: “It has far too many moving parts, and time is not on the side of the administration, so it can fail. There might be pushback from some U.S. allies,” particularly since “the Taliban has shown limited interest in meaningful engagement.”

Mr. Mir said the letter indicated that the Biden administration sees Mr. Ghani as an impediment to peace. “It is in no mood to indulge his parochialism,” he said.

Mr. Blinken’s letter, first reported by the independent channel TOLO News in Kabul, said the proposed three-month reduction in violence was intended to forestall a widely anticipated spring offensive by the Taliban while giving negotiations a chance at a fresh start.

“I urge you to strongly consider the proposal,” the secretary told Mr. Ghani.

Mr. Blinken has previously indicated that American troops would not remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. Many analysts say Afghan security forces, already hollowed out by high casualty and desertion rates, would be hard pressed to hold off the Taliban without the presence of American troops — even if Washington and coalition allies continued to provide financial aid and military hardware.

“I must also make clear to you, Mr. President, that as our policy process continues in Washington, the United States has not ruled out any option,” Mr. Blinken wrote.

Adam Weinstein, research fellow for the Middle East at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, said the Biden administration considered Mr. Ghani both a necessary partner and a roadblock to a peace agreement.

“This letter sends a strong message to Ghani to play ball or get out of the way,” he said.

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