During Joe Biden’s campaign, and then when he was elected president, the greatest concern of Israel and many its supporters was Biden’s desire to return to the nuclear deal with Iran. Biden will be pressured by the other signatories to rejoin the agreement, however, he laid out stringent requirements Iran must meet. Moreover, he has made clear he is not interested in the same deal; he wants a stronger one.
Specifically, he wants to return to negotiations “to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions” while making “an unshakable commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” He will rejoin the agreement “if Iran returns to strict compliance” and will “push back against Iran’s destabilizing activities.” He said his administration will impose “targeted sanctions against Iranian support for terrorism and Iran’s ballistic missile program” and promised “ironclad support for Israel.”
In an interview with Tom Friedman, Biden said, “the best way to achieve getting some stability in the region” is to deal “with the nuclear program.” He added, “in consultation with our allies and partners, we’re going to engage in negotiations and follow-on agreements to tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as well as address the missile program.” He also said the U.S. could snap back sanctions if necessary, but that was Obama’s promise as well and the other signatories refused to implement them after Iran violated the agreement.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left no doubt about his government’s position. “There must be no return to the previous nuclear agreement. We must stick to an uncompromising policy to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said. In the past, however, before President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, he had said he favored negotiation of a better deal.
The Gulf states that objected to the deal are also vehemently against the United States reversing Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign and rejoining the agreement. Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, the former head of Saudi Intelligence and chairman of the Saudi King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, said, “Mr. President-elect, do not repeat the mistakes and shortcomings of the first deal. Any non-comprehensive deal will not achieve lasting peace and security in our region.” He added, “Iranian disruptive regional behavior in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, by attacking, directly and indirectly, the oil installations, is as much of a threat as is its nuclear program.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan has said the Gulf states expect to be consulted before any new agreement is negotiated. “I think we’ve seen as a result of the after-effects of the JCPOA that not involving the regional countries results in a buildup of mistrust and neglect of the issues of real concern and of real effect on regional security.”
The U.K., France, and Germany are anxious for the U.S. to rejoin the deal so they can pursue commercial interests in Iran. They, too, however, realize there is no going back to the original agreement and that a new one must be negotiated that addresses Iran’s missile development, sponsorship of terror, and malign activities in the region. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, for example, said:
He added, “The decisive factor will be whether the U.S. relaxes the economic sanctions against Iran.”
The Iranians, meanwhile, have said they will not change their policy and are demanding the United States pay them as much as $200 billion to compensate for the economic losses caused by sanctions. “We once tried the path of having the sanctions lifted and negotiated several years, but this got us nowhere,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said. “They interfere in regional affairs; they tell us not to intervene. And while Britain and France have nuclear missiles, they tell us not to have missiles. What does it have to do with you? You should first correct yourselves.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has said he is not opposed to renewed talks, but will not “renegotiate what we already negotiated.”
Analysts believe it will be difficult to renegotiate the agreement for several other reasons. Iran, for example, is likely to demand the end of sanctions related to human rights violations, ballistic missile development, and support for terrorism in addition to lifting those related to the nuclear program. At a minimum, Iran expects to be allowed to sell its oil. Meanwhile, the elements the U.S. wants included in a new deal, such as Iran’s missile program, are red lines for the Iranians.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made clear he would not agree to any expansion of the JCPOA to cover the malign activities left out of the agreement. “The missiles program and regional issues have nothing to do with the nuclear issue,” Rouhani said.
Some Iranians don’t trust the U.S. now to stick to any new agreement. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, also has a strong disincentive not to offer any compromises because he is running for reelection in June 2021 and hardliners would expect him to deliver serious U.S. concessions to win their support.
According to Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, there have been too many breaches to return to the original agreement. “I cannot imagine that they are going simply to say, ‘We are back to square one’ because square one is no longer there,” he said.
Secretary of State Tony Blinken said on February 16, 2021, “If Iran returns to compliance and we do the same, we need to work on an agreement that's longer and stronger than the original one. And we also need to engage other issues that were not part of the original negotiation that are deeply problematic for us and for other countries around the world: Iran's ballistic missile program, its destabilizing actions in country after country. All of that needs to be engaged.” He added, “The first step would be Iran returning to compliance. And President Biden has been clear that if they do, we would do the same. The path to diplomacy is open right now. Iran is still a ways away from being in compliance. So we'll have to see what it does.”
Blinken claimed the JCPOA “was very effective in cutting off all of the pathways that Iran then had to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. And we know that that agreement was working.”
The evidence suggests otherwise, and it is difficult to see how he can say Iran’s pathways to a bomb were cutoff and in the same breadth declare they are closer now to a bomb. First, they were not supposed to be able violate the deal with impunity as they have. Snapback sanctions were supposed to be applied but the Europeans rejected them. Second, because the JCPOA allowed them to keep their centrifuges rather than destroy them, they have been able to enrich uranium to a higher level of purity. Third, the deal’s sunset clauses allow Iran to pursue a bomb unhindered, with Obama admitting the breakout time would be reduced to almost zero within 15 years of having signed it.
Meanwhile, Khamenei set his own conditions for returning to compliance on February 7, 2021: “If they want Iran to return to its JCPOA commitments, America should lift the sanctions entirely, in practice not in words. Then we verify it and see if sanctions are properly lifted before we return to the JCPOA’s commitments...This is the Islamic Republic’s irrevocable and definitive policy, and a matter of consensus between the country’s officials.”
After threatening to prevent any inspections, Iran softened its position in what was viewed as a response to President Biden’s announcement of plans to resume diplomatic negotiations. Rafael Grossi, the director general of the IAEA, said his inspectors would have “less access,” but that they could still monitor key production sites where Iran has declared that it is making nuclear material. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said, however, inspectors could not demand access to sites where they suspect nuclear activity may have taken place and would be blocked from obtaining footage from security cameras that keep some of the sites under surveillance.
Even as Iran continue to violate the JCPOA, the Biden administration made its first concessions – announcing the intention to resume talks and rescinding the Trump administration’s imposition of snapback sanctions. The State Department also eased travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats coming to the United Nations.
In what some in the region were interpreting initally as a sign of weakness, Secretary of State Blinken said the U.S. was “outraged,” but failed to respond to a rocket attack on a U.S. base in Iraq that killed a contractor and wounded nine others, including a member of the military that was likely launched by an Iranian-supported militia.
Michael Knights told the Washington Post Biden’s team does not want to acknowledge the Iranian role in the attack because it would complicate their interest in negotiations. “It’s about keeping the conditions there for a nuclear deal,” said Knights. “You don’t negotiate with people who are nudge, nudge, wink, wink, trying to kill you at the same time.”
Biden subsequently ordered a military strike on targets in Syria near the Iraqi border used by an Iranian-backed militia. The president said, he was sending a message to Iran, “You can’t act with impunity – be careful.”
A few days later, Iran rejected an offer to begin negotiations with the United States.
In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 10, 2021,, Blinken said the administration was not going to make any concessions to Iran to rejoin the nuclear deal. The administration insists that Iran return to full compliance with the agreement and hopes to use that as a “platform” for negotiating a “longer and stronger” deal.
“We have fundamental problems with Iran’s actions across a whole series of things, whether it is support for terrorism, whether it is a ballistic missile program,” said Blinken. “An Iran with a nuclear weapon or with the threshold capacity to have one is an Iran that is likely to act with even greater impunity when it comes to those things.”
Blinken assured the committee the administration will consult on its Iran policy. “Congress is the first stop,” he said, “but also allies, partners, including allies and partners in the region, who have their own concerns and own interests at stake.” Blinken said the U.S. has already had discussion with China, Russia and the European signatories to the Iran deal.
Meanwhile, 140 members of the House, split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, sent a letter to Blinken insisting that any agreements with Iranaddress the full range of threats that Iran poses to the region.
State Department Iran envoy Rob Malley told Axios that the U.S. and Israel want to avoid a repetition of the public confrontation over Iran that took place during the Obama administration. “We don’t always agree, but the talks are extremely open and positive. While we may have different interpretations and views as to what happened in 2015–2016, neither of us wishes to repeat it," Malley said.
Toward that end, the Biden administration plans to consult with Israel and officials agreed to a “no surprises policy.”
Officials from both countries have already had several discussions regarding Iran, and a meeting of the U.S.-Israel strategic forum was scheduled for March 11, 2021, with national security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat leading the talks, which were expected to include sharing intelligence on Iran's nuclear program.
Critics of the nuclear agreement have feared the Biden administration would capitulate to Iranian demands to ease sanctions and agree to return to the JCPOA without either Iranian concessions or any commitment to renegotiate a stronger agreement. The first indication the administration may be heading in that direction occurred during a meeting of the P5+1 China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany.) minus the United States in early April. They agreed to convene a meeting in Vienna on April 6, 2021, to discuss how to bring both the United States and Iran back into compliance.
A U.S. official said that intermediaries would seek an agreement on how to synchronize steps to return to their commitments, including the lifting of economic sanctions. Meanwhile, Iranian negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, said no negotiation are required; the U.S. must unilaterally return to the deal and end all sanctions.
During the Vienna talks, the United States and Iran agreed through intermediaries to establish a working group to discuss the lifting of sanctions imposed by President Trump. A second working group will focus on how to get Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA.
Prime Minister Netanyahu reacted to the news by noting that “history has taught us that agreements like this with extremist regimes are worth as much as garlic peel.” He also warned the negotiators that Israel would not be bound by “an agreement with Iran which paves its way to nuclear weapons that threaten us with destruction.”
He added, “Today we have a state, we have the power to defend ourselves and we have the natural and full right as the sovereign state of the Jewish people to protect ourselves from our enemies.”
David Pollock of the Washington Institute observed that the good news is that “unlike the Obama administration that most of them were previously part of,” Biden’s team “seems focused almost as much on Iran’s non-nuclear activities as on its nuclear ones.” He said, the bad new is “their actual policy toward those non-nuclear challenges are mostly carrots with few sticks. “The result, no doubt unwittingly, is that the U.S. is emboldening and empowering Iran on the Mideast regional level, rather than containing it.”
Former Lt.-Gen. H.R. McMaster told the Jerusalem Post Iran is focused on its election scheduled for June 2021 and the post-Khamenei period and would not make any new agreements at least until a president is elected. He also said the Biden administration could stop the Chinese, or at least inhibit their economic relations with Iran by imposing “secondary sanctions on Chinese banks.”
Though originally opposed to Trump’s decision to leave the deal, he now believes it is a mistake to return to the agreement. He said, adding a few years to the restrictions due to expire in 2025 and 2030 would not be sufficient. In his book Battlegrounds, he had also noted the JCPOA’s verification regime was a farce because “before the ink was dry, Iran was announcing which inspections it would not allow.”
He warned the U.S. should not “underestimate the ideology of the revolution, of Iran’s forward defense strategy and desire to restore Iran as an empire.”
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