increasing enrichment to just short of bomb grade in small quantities and barring international inspectors from key sites in late February — Mr. Zarif insists that these moves are easily reversible.

American intelligence officials say that while Iran has bolstered its production of nuclear material — and is probably only months from being able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one or two bombs — even now, there is no evidence Iran is advancing on its work to fashion a warhead. “We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device,” Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, said in a report last month.

scandal over Mr. Zarif, whose criticism of internal decision-making recently leaked, apparently in an effort to damage his reputation and any chance he had to run for the presidency.

Ayatollah Khamenei refuted the criticism without naming Mr. Zarif, but he said the comments were “a big mistake that must not be made by an official of the Islamic Republic” and “a repetition of what Iran’s enemies say.”

At the same time, by downplaying Mr. Zarif’s role, the supreme leader reaffirmed his support for the talks while also sheltering them from criticism by hard-liners, said Ellie Geranmayeh of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels, and David E. Sanger from Washington. Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York.

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Second Close Call Between Iranian and American Vessels Raises Tensions

WASHINGTON — For the second time in a month, vessels from Iran and the United States came dangerously close in the Persian Gulf on Monday night, the Navy said on Tuesday, escalating tensions between the two nations as their negotiators have resumed talks toward renewing the 2015 nuclear deal.

According to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, three fast-attack craft from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps sailed close to a Navy coastal patrol ship and a Coast Guard patrol boat as the two American vessels were patrolling international waters in the northern part of the Persian Gulf.

At about 8 p.m. local time Monday, the Iranian boats rapidly and repeatedly approached the American ships, the Firebolt and the Baranoff — at one point coming as close as 68 yards, according to a Navy statement.

The American crews issued multiple warnings via bridge-to-bridge radio and loudspeakers, but the Iranian vessels continued their close-range maneuvers, the Navy said. When the Firebolt’s crew fired warning shots, the Iranians vessels moved away “to a safe distance from the U.S. vessels,” the Navy said.

Iranian forces captured and held overnight 10 U.S. sailors who strayed into the Islamic Republic’s territorial waters.

However, such incidents had mostly stopped in 2018 and for nearly the entirety of 2019, Commander Rebarich said. The episodes at sea have almost always involved the Revolutionary Guards, which reports only to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The earlier encounter this month happened on April 2, when a Revolutionary Guards Corps ship, the Harth 55, accompanied by three fast-attack vessels, harassed two Coast Guard cutters, the Wrangell and the Monomoy, as they were conducting routine security patrols in the international waters of the southern Persian Gulf, the Navy said in a separate statement issued earlier on Tuesday. That episode was earlier reported by The Wall Street Journal.

the deadly attack in 2000 on the destroyer Cole in Yemen — that are specifically devised to take out small fast-attack craft like these from the Iranians. But the American vessels targeted this month have no such weaponry aboard.

The incident on Monday night occurred just days after a leaked audiotape offered a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes power struggles of Iranian leaders. In the recording, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the Revolutionary Guards Corps called the shots, overruling many government decisions and ignoring diplomatic advice.

In one extraordinary moment on the tape, Mr. Zarif departed from the reverential official line on Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Guards’ elite Quds Force, the foreign-facing arm of Iran’s security apparatus, who was killed by the United States in January 2020.

“In the Islamic Republic, the military field rules,” Mr. Zarif said in a three-hour conversation that was a part of an oral history project documenting the work of the current administration.

John Ismay contributed reporting.

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Iran’s Foreign Minister, in Leaked Tape, Says Revolutionary Guards Set Policies

In a leaked audiotape that offers a glimpse into the behind-the scenes power struggles of Iranian leaders, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the Revolutionary Guards Corps call the shots, overruling many government decisions and ignoring advice.

In one extraordinary moment on the tape that surfaced Sunday, Mr. Zarif departed from the reverential official line on Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Guards’ elite Quds Force, the foreign-facing arm of Iran’s security apparatus, who was killed by the United States in January 2020.

The general, Mr. Zarif said, undermined him at many steps, working with Russia to sabotage the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers and adopting policies toward Syria’s long war that damaged Iran’s interests.

“In the Islamic Republic the military field rules,” Mr. Zarif said in a three-hour taped conversation that was a part of an oral history project documenting the work of the current administration. “I have sacrificed diplomacy for the military field rather than the field servicing diplomacy.”

choreograph steps toward returning to a deal.

“The structure of our foreign ministry is mostly security oriented,” Mr. Zarif said.

Mr. Zarif said he was kept in the dark on government actions — sometimes to his embarrassment.

On the night that Iran decided to retaliate against the United States for the killing of General Suleimani, two Quds Force commanders went to see the Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, to inform him that in about 45 minutes Iran would be firing missiles at a military base where U.S. troops were stationed, Mr. Zarif said. The Americans knew about the strike before he did.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry informed him that Israel had attacked Iranian interests in Syria at least 200 times, to his astonishment, Mr. Zarif said.

downing of a Ukrainian jetliner in Iran that killed 176 on board on the morning after Iran attacked the air base.

The Guards knew immediately that their missiles had hit the plane, but only admitted to it three days later.

Soon after the plane was brought down, Mr. Zarif attended a small meeting of the national security council with two top military commanders, and said the world was demanding an explanation. The commanders, he said, attacked him and told him to send out a tweet saying the news was not true.

“I said, ‘If it was hit by a missile, tell us so we can see how we can resolve it,’” Mr. Zarif recalled. “God is my witness, the way they reacted to me is as if I had denied the existence of God.”

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Iran Vows Revenge for Alleged Israeli Attack on Nuclear Site

JERUSALEM — The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, vowed revenge against Israel on Monday morning, a day after a blackout at an Iranian nuclear enrichment site was attributed to an Israeli attack.

Mr. Zarif’s comments highlight the risk of escalation in a yearslong shadow war between Iran and Israel. They also threaten to overshadow efforts in Vienna to encourage Iran to reimpose limits on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of American sanctions.

In a statement broadcast by Iranian state television, Mr. Zarif was quoted as saying: “The Zionists want to take revenge because of our progress in the way to lift sanctions.”

He added, “But we will take our revenge from the Zionists,” according to the broadcast.

Mr. Zarif’s reported comments followed a power failure on Sunday at the Natanz uranium enrichment site that Iranian officials attributed to Israeli sabotage. The Israeli government formally declined to comment on its involvement, but American and Israeli officials confirmed separately to The New York Times that Israel had played a role. Several Israeli news outlets, citing intelligence sources, attributed the attack to the Mossad, the Israeli spy agency.

efforts by the Biden administration to encourage Iran to return to something close to a 2015 agreement negotiated by the Obama administration, in which Tehran promised to limit its enrichment program.

collapsed in 2018, when President Donald J. Trump reimposed sanctions on Iran, and Iran reneged on commitments to curb its nuclear plans.

Israel opposes returning to the same deal, arguing that it did not impose strong enough or long enough restrictions on Iranian nuclear activity. Analysts were divided about whether Israel’s aggression was intended to scupper the negotiations altogether — or to simply weaken Iran’s hand at the table.

The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said that the blackout did not augur well for the negotiations in Vienna. “What we are hearing currently out of Tehran is not a positive contribution, particularly the development in Natanz,” Mr. Maas said on Monday.

For years, Israel and Iran have been engaged in a low-level shadow conflict.

Both have been accused of cyberattacks on the other’s territory. Iran finances and arms militias hostile to Israel across the Middle East, and has been accused of attempted assassinations of Israeli diplomats across the world. Israel is believed to be responsible for the assassination of several Iranian nuclear scientists, most recently in November, when a leading architect of the Iranian nuclear program was killed in an ambush.

Those attacks have escalated at sea in the past two years, as Israel began to attack ships carrying Iranian fuel, and Iran seemed to respond by targeting at least two Israeli-owned cargo ships.

Both sides managed to contain the conflict, partly by refraining from speaking too publicly about the attacks.

standing trial for corruption and is struggling to form a new coalition government after a general election last month that gave no party an overall majority. Some analysts say they believe that a very public confrontation with Iran might help Mr. Netanyahu persuade wavering coalition partners that now is not the time to bring down an experienced prime minister.

“He may want to both build up his image and create a little bit of a foreign policy crisis, which then helps him solve the coalition crisis,” Mr. Freilich said.

Myra Noveck contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Steven Erlanger from Brussels.

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The Iran Nuclear Talks Explained

BRUSSELS — In Vienna on Tuesday, the signers of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal will come together with what would appear to be a simple task. They want to restore compliance with an agreement that put strict controls on Iran’s nuclear enrichment, to ensure that it cannot build a nuclear weapon, in return for the lifting of punishing economic sanctions.

Both Iran and the United States insist that they want to return to the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or J.C.P.O.A. But nothing about the meeting will be simple.

President Donald J. Trump pulled the United States out of the accord in May 2018, calling it “the worst deal ever negotiated,’’ and restored and then enhanced harsh economic sanctions against Iran, trying to force it to renegotiate.

Iran responded in part by enriching uranium significantly beyond the limits in the agreement, building more advanced centrifuges, and acting more aggressively in support of allies in the Middle East, like Hezbollah, Hamas, Shia militias in Iraq and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

intended to create a road map for a synchronized return of both Iran and the United States to compliance with the 2015 deal. It has been at risk of collapse since Mr. Trump repudiated American participation.

The accord was the outcome of years of negotiations with Iran. Under the chairmanship of the European Union, Britain, France and Germany made the first overtures to Iran, joined by the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: Russia, China and the United States.

But it was not until the United States started secret talks with Iran under President Barack Obama and agreed that Iran could enrich uranium, though under safeguards, that a breakthrough occurred. Even then, the deal was widely criticized as too weak by many in Congress and by Israel, which saw Iran’s possible reach for a nuclear weapon — an aspiration always denied by Iran — as an existential threat.

The Europeans tried to keep the deal alive, but proved unable to provide Iran the economic benefits it was due after Mr. Trump restored American sanctions that had been lifted under the deal’s terms. The American sanctions, based on the global power of the dollar and the American banking system, kept European and other companies from doing business with Iran, and Mr. Trump intensified the pressure by adding many more sanctions.

agreed in late February to keep recording information on its inspection equipment for three months, but without granting I.A.E.A. access. If economic sanctions are not lifted in that time, Iran says, the information will be deleted, which would leave the world in the dark about key parts of the nuclear program.

Iran insists it can return to compliance with the deal quickly, but wants the United States to do so first. The Biden administration says it wants Iran to go first.

Trust is one big problem. The Iranian regime was established by a revolution more than four decades ago that replaced the American-backed Shah of Iran with a complicated government overseen by clerics and the strong hand of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The ayatollah only reluctantly agreed to the 2015 deal with the “Great Satan” of America. After Mr. Trump pulled out, Mr. Khamenei’s mistrust only deepened.

Mr. Trump also imposed many economic sanctions on Iran beyond those originally lifted by the deal, trying “maximum pressure” to force Iran to negotiate much more stringent terms. Iranian officials now say as many as 1,600 American sanctions must be lifted, about half of them imposed by Mr. Trump. Some are aimed at terrorism and human rights violations, not nuclear issues. Lifting some of them would create opposition in Congress.

Many in Washington, let alone in Israel and Europe, also disbelieve Iran’s assertions that it has never pursued a nuclear weapon and would never do so.

Further complicating restoration of the accord are its “sunset” clauses, or time limits, that would allow Iran to resume certain nuclear enrichment activities. The Biden administration wants further negotiations with Iran to extend those time limits as well as put limits on Iran’s missile program and other activities.

Iran says it simply wants the United States to return to the deal it left, including the lifting of sanctions, before it will return, too. It has so far rejected any further talks.

Even under the Islamic regime, Iran has politics, too. There are presidential elections in June, with candidates approved by the clerics. The current president, Hassan Rouhani, who cannot run for another term, and the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, are considered relatively moderate and negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal. But powerful forces in Iran opposed the deal, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The moderates hope that quick progress on lifting economic sanctions will help them in the presidential elections; the hard-liners are expected to oppose any quick deal in Vienna that might benefit the moderates.

Iran has lived with tough Trump sanctions for three years now and survived popular discontent and even protests, and hard-liners will argue that another six months are not likely to matter.

The meeting of senior diplomats is formally a session of the Joint Commission of the deal, called by the European Union as chairman. Since the United States left the accord, its representatives will not be in the room, but somewhere nearby. Diplomats from Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran will meet, with a European Union chair, and start to discuss how to revitalize the accord.

Iran refuses to meet face-to-face with American diplomats. So the Europeans suggest that they will either meet the Americans with proposals, or that the Iranians will leave the room before the Americans enter. This process of indirect talks could take time.

But European diplomats say that after a few days, the job will be left in Vienna to working groups on the complicated political and technical issues. If a rough agreement can be reached on a synchronized return to compliance, the expectation is that officials of Iran and the United States will meet to finalize the details.

The talks may take a long time, and some in Washington hope at least for an agreement in principle in the next few months that would bind any new Iranian government after the June elections.

But some European diplomats fear that too much time has already elapsed, and that the deal is effectively dead, and will essentially serve as a reference point for what may be a fundamentally new negotiation.

So the timeline is unclear, as is the prospect for success.

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